There’s a lot of “discourse” lately about “gifted kids”, who, more often than not, are children who had class privileges growing up and then found themselves among those same gatekept networks in adulthood, rendering their advantages meaningless. I have a lot of disagreement with the idea that somebody can be born talented, “gifted”, etc., but in fiction, this disagreement does not matter. In a limited edition Netflix series, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, Beth Harmon is perfect. Despite her travails into addiction and self destruction, she radiates self assured, humourless discipline, and a stark confidence that reveals her to be unimpeachable. She is unquestionably brilliant simply because she does not entertain questions. She has suffered considerable tragedy, but bounces into riches with her supreme abilities at chess. She suffers loss repeatedly, she suffers a traumatic childhood, she suffers through a complicated relationship with substances that is utterly uncomplicated inside her own mind. At the end of it all, she comes out covered in white wool, sitting down to do what she loves, leaning into glorious joy with the same austere reserve that she first leaned into her downward spiral with. She is deeply, angelically unreal, almost superficially brilliant, and that’s what makes her a good story.
Beyond her obvious, prodigious intellect, the crux of her allure is her impenetrable character. She owes no explanations, entertains no judgement, and is shocked when she’s met with any negative response, as when Benny tells her to go off to Moscow by herself. And even in this abandonment, she is unwavered. She asks Harry to come live in her dead mother’s house, she agrees to go up to Townes’ room in a hotel, she even walks up to Jolene and asks her for vitamins once she’s run out. Despite all the loss in her life, she is set on grasping whatever she likes, and for the most part, is able to do so. Here is the tragedy of falling in love with her character: she isn’t real. The writers have taken full advantage of every fiction they possibly could, allowing a young chess player to buy a house, allowing her childhood best friend to show up at just the right time and lend her money to go to Russia, allowing her the freedom to go live with Benny in New York and have sex with Cleo in Paris and run into Townes in Moscow. Allowing her to find Mr. Shaibel in the basement of Methuen and convince him to teach her chess.
The unfortunate reality is that you probably have to be fictional to turn out the way she did. And you probably have to be fictional to be as plainly adored as she is capable of being. I found solace in her friendships, I gasped with joy at her living carelessly as a young woman, smoking joints wrapped up in a towel, I wept when Benny and the group phoned her in Russia and helped her map out her win. There is a morbid fascination at her achievement when you compare it to where she was a short while ago: fallen over in her garden, taking the trash out, still glamorous. I’m smoking a cigarette as I write this and I’m utterly heartbroken that she isn’t real. I am grateful for fiction because it allows me to crystallise my own imagination, my own endgames, what things could be like. Watching her has been painful, because as much as I say I relate to her so much, of course there’s a line to draw in my similarities to a chess prodigy in the 60s. I played a lot of chess as a child. I was very good. And then I got depressed. It’s a story as old as time. The other day I cried playing chess online because of how terrible I was. I feel similarly, stringently self punishing. But there is so much more to punish. I will always love the world of the imagination for its possibilities, but it is terrifying when it shows you the limits of what is real. So instead I am smoking a cigarette and writing, writing, writing, perhaps to crystallise this feeling of deep gratitude mixed with possessiveness mixed with secretive, sheepish joy at the resonance I feel with her. I have borderline personality disorder, and one of my symptoms is a lack of sense of self. I absorb personality where I find it. Beth Harmon was perhaps the first time it felt less like absorption and more like desire, which was met in the end with a happy similarity that was there all along. I am grateful for everywhere she exists, but I wish it was in real life. Perhaps then she would be less perfect, more real, less magic, more person.