Wednesday, November 09, 2011

I know where to hide those ludes!, or, Place-based boredom

In Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit (1983), there's a scene where the protagonist, a chess prodigy who at the time is eight years old and living in an orphanage, is trying to break into a locked office to steal some tranquilizers (liberally used to quiet the orphans). She gets into the office, then realizes that, rather than simply stuffing her pockets, she could conceivably take the whole jar:
She knew, too, where she could hide it, on the shelf of a disused janitors' closet in the girls' room. There was an old galvanized bucket up there that was never used; the jar would fit into it. There was also a short ladder in the closet, and she could use it safely because a person could lock the door on the girls' room from the inside. Then, if there was a search for the missing pills, even if they found them, they couldn't be traced to her.
When I read that passage earlier this week, it unexpectedly called up vivid memories of large, mostly forgotten swathes of childhood. Not that I was a tranq-stealing rebel--it won't surprise you to learn that I was the farthest thing from it. No, it's the girl's instant recall of the perfect hiding space that did it, that evocation of hitherto useless knowledge that can only be the product of hours of place-based boredom. If we're lucky enough to end up in even moderately interesting jobs, as adults we don't have to endure boredom all that often, and certainly not the reliable, week-after-week boredom in a small number of repetitive locations that seems inescapable in childhood. Think back to school, and to how fully you knew every corner and quirk of the classrooms you daydreamed in. Or church, and the way that, bored by all this talk of souls and eternity*, you memorized the floor plan, entrances and exits, closets and storage rooms, classrooms and kitchens of the whole church rather than listen. The mind is rarely truly at rest, especially when we're young and have less self to rest it on, so week after week and hour after hour, we focused on the details of the places that bored us. So I knew as I read that, where in my own grade school I would have hidden a bottle of tranquilizers had I needed to. The school's still there, the hiding place still vivid in my mind. I could even suggest a backup spot or two, if needed. All of which reminded me of my favorite side effect of reading a large number of Richard Stark's Parker novels in quick succession: you start to see the world differently, and to pay attention to the odd non-spaces that we pass through every day without noticing. As I wrote a couple of years back, after reading Parker,
don't be surprised if you find yourself looking at your city just a bit differently come Monday. As you head out on your usual route to work or the store, for the first time you'll find your eye drawn to service entrances and side doors, Brinks trucks and window bars, inattentive security guards and indolent clerks . . . And what about that hard-looking man in the pea coat who seems to be casting his gaze ever so casually at the very same thing?
I don't lament never having occasion to be bored in my adult life, but I do like sometimes being called to attend to those spaces in urban life that, by their anonymity, practically beg us not to give them a second glance. There are a lot of unmarked doors in the city, and we owe it to ourselves and our city to once in a while imagine what's behind them. {Oh, and I should say that The Queen's Gambit is a really impressive novel, one that makes chess seem as gripping as a duel to the death and shows a remarkable understanding of how head-to-head sports works on the levels of mind, body, and will. In addition, Tevis's ability to convey the feeling of having a gift is astonishing: from the very first time his protagonist sees a chess board, we believe, wholly, that she grasps it intuitively like he says she does. His sentences are straightforward, declarative, undramatic--I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Donald Westlake was a fan, as there are real similarities in the prose--and their effect is powerful. A book about sports, to be successful, needs to convince us that the sport in question is, for the length of the book, the most important thing in the world; The Queen's Gambit leaves no doubt. My thanks to Ed Park for the recommendation.}


  1. This blog is terrible for my book-buying budget: I think I'll have to read The Queen's Gambit (I already own many Westlakes/Starks).

    I hadn't realized Tevis wrote non-sf novels; the only book of his I knew of was The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is probably better-known for its film adaptation.

  2. He's actually best-known for The Hustler and The Color of Money, which of course became successful films. Clearly he understood the psyche of the head-to-head competitor.