-Will (of course), writing in Richard II (Act III, Scene ii)
See? There ‘tis! he crowed triumphantly. Even in Will’s day, they knew all about cliché and stereotype. Thus it hast ever been, thus ‘twill ever be. Selah! Selah!
Ah, right. Anyway… cliché… something on my mind since watching Netflix’s enormously popular The Queen’s Gambit (TQG). That’s not quite the putdown it might initially seem. Let me start by briefly recounting the Sad Tale, complete with spoilers.
Poor Beth, a 1950s girl orphaned young. Her mentally ill mother commits suicide --- evidently tries infanticide, too --- by veering their car into oncoming traffic. Miraculously, Beth survives. (There’s a father around, but he wants nothing to do with Beth, so, hence, the orphan tag.)
Beth winds up in a state-run orphanage. It’s not exactly Dickensian, but definitely on the scale, with the kind of institutionalized grimness we’re accustomed to from countless novels. Beth is a solemn, introverted sort --- today we’d likely say she’s on the autism spectrum --- who, quite early at the orphanage, discovers chess, learning it from the janitor… and takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. She is, quite simply, a natural. A whiz. A prodigy. A savant. She displays an astounding ability to play and mentally map out whole sequences of upcoming complex moves --- hers and her opponent’s. Unfortunately, at least partially, this ability is augmented by tranquilizers the orphanage daily dispenses like candy to inmates (hey, it is the ‘60s), sowing the seed for a very unhealthy dependency.
Beth is ultimately adopted by an alliterative married couple, Allston and Alma. It quickly becomes evident Allston wants nothing to do with her, that the adoption was Alma’s idea, who also, BTW, has an unhealthy relationship with pills (and alcohol) --- though, to be fair, much less was understood about their harmful effects, 60 years ago.
Allston, callous bastard extraordinaire, has an affair and abandons Alma and Beth. Fortunately, Alma is shrewd enough to realize Beth’s chess abilities can prove lucrative if she wins tournament prize money, and so becomes Beth’s unofficial manager/agent as they criss-cross the USA, playing in competitions where Beth steamrolls over a host of fragile/misogynistic male egos. (In the ‘60s, competitive chess was almost exclusively a male domain, and to have a girl --- ooh, ick, cooties! --- be so much better than guys was… well, inconceivable.) In fact, the world chess championship doesn’t look out of reach.
Of course, this heady scenario must suffer unfortunate complications. Alma’s alcoholism (which she exports to Beth) and prescription drug abuse eventually catches up to her, and she dies --- in Mexico, in the middle of a tourney. Oops. Teenage Beth has to cope with all the grisly machinations involved with such an event, complicated shortly thereafter by a severe crisis of confidence frequently afflicting supremely confident people who discover, to their stunned, dismayed surprise (gasp!) they aren’t infallible --- and have feet of clay, to boot.
Additionally, Beth’s own very unhealthy relationship with alcohol and prescription drugs catches up with her, too, and she crashes (metaphorically) in heavily dramatic fashion. She retreats to her home, going on a spectacular bender that threatens to undo all she’s accomplished thus far in her young life --- including the upcoming world championship in the USSR.
Fortunately, she’s rescued by friends (including former competitors) who convince her to pull it all together. They patch her up and send her off to Moscow, complete with CIA handler, where she both charms the repressed populace and manages, in a final, climactic battle, to defeat the Soviet champion, thereby winning the world title. Yay, Beth! You go, girl.
(That wasn’t very brief, you note disapprovingly. Shut up, I explain. It certainly was, given we’re discussing a seven-hour tale. And I left a lot out... except a spoiler or six. Oops again.)
So… a plethora of characters and situations, many of which fairly smack of cliché. You know: po’ little strange orphan child makes good, tearing down a lotta stereotypical barriers and people along the way, etcetera, etcetera. Beth’s kinda like The Little Engine That Could of chess.
But before rushing to the conclusion I hated TQG, let me disabuse you of that right now --- and thereby hangs the tale, as Will might say. Or at least the point of today’s little epistle.
Sure, there’s a grab bag of clichés in TQG, and I recognized this early on, but (here’s the punch line) … It Didn’t Matter. Why? Well, a couple of reasons.
First, the story was extremely well told. The characters and narrative were absorbing. I’ve sat here a while trying to generate a pithy aphorism concerning how you can tell when a storyline involves riveting cliché, and when the cliché simply makes you want to puke because it’s so grindingly bad… and I’ve come up empty. All I can say is that, like true love, you know it when you see it. TQG was a story (about chess, for crying out loud, not an activity usually associated with acute visual/auditory spectator stimulation) that more than held my interest over those sevenish hours. (Yep, I play chess. The set I inherited from my grandfather is in the photograph, incidentally.)
Second, when you get right down to it… life is, for most of us plebes, one long string of clichés. People are not nearly as clever or original as they like to think. Clichés happen so often, to so many of us. That’s why they become clichés. We may get tired of them, but they keep on happening. And, you know… long before a fellow named Christopher Booker wrote a book about it, people recognized --- or at least maintained --- there are, really, only about seven story plots in all literature. So… like haters gonna hate, clichés gonna happen.
Does it matter? No, as long as writers aren’t rubbing our collective noses in it. We try to write unexpected situations and plot twists, but I begin to wonder whether that’s possible anymore.
But it’s not as important to me as it once was.