Monday, June 2, 2008

Potemkin Village

Since Dana Mackenzie just put up a review, I thought I'd chime in with a short review I wrote a while back and was saving for a slow news day.

A while back, I read J.C. Hallman’s The Chess Artist. Like Catherine Neville’s The Eight, I liked the descriptive elements of the writing such as the Kalmyk fly and the extravagant desolation (another oxymoron for you, Dana) of Kalmykia. I liked the in-depth character sketches of Glenn and Baagi, especially their common satisfaction at having played without fear.

However, as with The Eight, I was hoping for more of a payoff. The main plot device seemed to be a half-hearted detective story about the death of reporter Larisa Yudina who was found beaten to death in a pond in Elista. Perhaps the book was limited by the fact that it was autobiographical and couldn’t rightly blend with fiction invented out of whole cloth. Ultimately the Yudina plot was weakly executed with several pointless walks and no real fact-gathering.

There was a decided lack of plot twists and characters changing course, except for a kind of exhausted repulsion between the two main characters at the end. In a way, the awkward tension between the main character and his compatriot is the same weak feeling that I had toward the book at the end. The Chess Artist was a respectable effort at painting a colorful picture of people and places. But because of its limitations in reality, it felt like I was reading the embellished journal of someone who didn’t really have such a significant life-changing tale to tell. The title sold me on an artist's journey, but like Kalmykia's Potemkin village it was facade without substance.

6 comments:

Temposchlucker said...

I didn't read the book. Isn't it simple a true story (in the eyes of the author) which can't be proven?

Kirsan using chess city as a way to launder money and giving orders to assasinate critical opposition as message to other criticasters?

chessloser said...

it was the chess artist that got me into chess. i don't know why, it just seemed to interesting to me, who had no inkling of what chess was about. i read that book and thought "damn, i wanna play chess, it sounds pretty wild." i thought the book was about the whole chess scene, and the trip to kalymkia was just a kind of "bonus footage." i wonder how i would react to the book now that i've been playing for a year and a half and been to tournaments and such...

Soapstone said...

temposchlucker - I'm not certain I understand your question, but I take it as saying that the nonfiction tale shouldn't be subject to literary criticisms. I guess I'm saying that even though it's true and valid as J.C. Hallman's experience, I ended up not liking it as a book whose draw was to tell me how a Chess Artist lives.

chessloser - Now I feel a little guilty for dissing the book that started the phenomenon of HCP. Perhaps it was my expectations that ruined it. I was hoping for some tales of intoxicating victory, mixed with those terrible depths we all experience magnified through the artist's perception. Lives destroyed and rebuilt from scratch. Instead, even though it contained the bonus footage of Kalmykia, it all seemed rather mundane with pervasive disillusionment at the end. The sad ending may get points for originality, but as with the movie "Million Dollar Baby", the conclusion hurt my sensibilities. I have this sense from your blog that you are about to quit tournament chess, perhaps because it's becoming an impractical and rut-filled road? That will also hurt my sensibilities in that chess in its purest form could not satisfy one of its most eloquent up-and-coming artists.

Wahrheit said...

See Soapstone, I told you that you'd get a commentariat if you just kept it coming.

I've been busy but I get around and read a little from time to time.

JCHallman said...

Hi there,

Thanks for beginning this discussion on "The Chess Artist." I responded to Dana's blog, so it only seems right to note this one as well (as soon as Google dutifully informed me it was happening).

As others have noted, I think Soapstone's criticism is a result of expecting a nonfiction book to work like a novel. They're different beasts. Certainly, I should be subject to criticism as a piece of literature, but I'm not trying to write a plot-driven book with lots of plot twists and turns.

Soapstone, you argue that I use the Yudina murder as a vehicle for the trip to Kalmykia...but I certainly didn't think of it that way. The organizing principle I had in mind was the question of whether chess is overtly "useful" in any way. (In fact, like Duchamp, I think it isn't, and that's precisely what raises it to the level of an artform.) So the book is, to my mind, more of an anthropological study than a novel, and the Yudina murder was one more facet of the country that had decided to make the game its pasttime. The book's a true life buddy story, not investigative journalism.

That's the goal anyway.

Thanks, in any event, in beginning the discussion on the book.

Best,
J.C. Hallman
jchallman.com

Wahrheit said...

Hey J.C., chessloser came into tournament chess as a result of your book, so it seems to me you've already justified your efforts a hundred time over... :)