In A Novel in a Year, Louise Doughty alternates exercises with discussion. The first exercise is to finish the following sentence: “The day after my eighth birthday….” It’s an interesting launch: can you differentiate your childhood birthdays? What would happen that you would remember the day after, not the day?
The day after my eighth birthday, my father told me that his brother had also been a chess player. My father had started teaching me at five: we had a set of pieces that looked like medieval soldiers, not abstract blocks, and my brother and I played with them like dolls before he decided to show me the game. He handicapped his side of the board, starting with mostly pawns and slowly adding back bishops, rook, and queen, to show me beginnings and endgames.
His brother was schizophrenic. I don’t remember not knowing that my uncle had died before I was born, but it took years to discover details. After his first breakdown, he could no longer write without reawakening the internal clamor. He became obsessed with chess, and hung out in the student union playing pickup games and reproducing famous matches. After the second breakdown, he could no longer read, about chess games or anything else. He drank huge glasses of orange juice carefully placed next to the chessboard. Fearing a third breakdown, he shot and killed himself.
Somehow it wasn’t chess, though, that got marked by the rest of the family—I remember chess sets, although they were largely ornamental, in most of my relatives’ homes. What seemed creepy to me was the obsessiveness of his behavior, foregoing other activities, replaying end games, trying to wriggle out of the checkmate that Bobby Fisher hadn’t, giant glass of orange juice at his elbow. Wherever they had really taken place, I pictured these games in an archway of the student union, out of the traffic and clogged with chairs and tables just large enough to hold the boards. I held this picture with such intensity and inevitability that when I visited years later, I avoided that section of the room.
At what point does interest become obsession? Is multitasking a defense against monomania? My uncle may have been self-medicating: plotting the next chess moves filled places in his brain that he couldn’t leave unoccupied. I didn’t feel grounded when I played chess, however: as possibilities multiplied, I became untethered and I couldn’t concentrate on the game in front of me. I largely gave up chess by high school and followed other, multiple enthusiasms; I was advised calm and focus. This is one problem with limited experience: we have no idea what is idiosyncratic. Which of Pop’s eccentricities are personality, and which are diagnosable markers of disease? Which did we inherit and which do we merely mimic? Having seen my uncle crack up, my relatives knew that someone walking up to the cliff could keep going, not veer back to the path. Which was the first misstep that couldn’t be taken back?
What was my dad thinking, teaching me to play chess? Maybe he was lonely. He’d lost an older brother who took the role seriously, a friend and defender as well as a chess partner. Maybe he was self-medicating, too, taking back chess, intelligence, a vivid inner life and saying, “This is not disease.” Where is the edge of the cliff? His definition of the path wavered between general and specific.Tweet