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.