Moon #21:  “The Devil Always Plays to a Draw”


Moon #21 Painting: "The Devil" by Larissa Tokmakova
Moon #21 Painting: “The Devil” by Larissa Tokmakova

“It’s a strange thing, the way the game is played.  You can’t really win.  We never really win a chess game.  People don’t really think about this.  You play chess until you have checkmated the king.  Until the other king cannot move, until the other king would be taken.  You play the game until and up to the point of death, but you don’t actually win a game of chess.  Instead, you have agreed by strategic decision that it ends here.”

On a cosmic level, the concept of “checkmate” looms large in the 21st Episode of his 29-part monologue, All the Faces of the MoonWe are approaching the end of this immense story and its foreshock tremors are starting to be felt.  As the title of this chapter and the quote above indicate, many of characters within Daisey’s narrative find themselves on the losing end of a seemingly unconquerable impasse, or making strategic alliances and life-or-death compromises before the final action begins.

Daisey’s introduction to this chapter is one of his more scattered, and it required more cognitive gymnastics than usual for me to grasp those crucial conversational rungs that lead from one topic to the next.  Stolen coffee!  David Lynch!  A convention of ardent non-fiction writers!  But the rungs are there, I assure you.  Every story turns on a question of process or an examination of a set of rules.   He recalls how, in high school, he forbade Gibbs from using magic to fuck with their chess coach, Mr. Carr.  That would be against the rules.  Or Daisey compares David Lynch’s strategy for directing the film Dune to driving a car off a cliff and not knowing that it would fall.  These are the wild parameters within which an auteur works.  There’s even a remark about whether or not it technically falls under Daisey’s stage manager’s duties to bring him coffee.  There’s a lot about coffee, actually.

Like chess, Daisey seems to say, everything comes down to what you can do within the scope of the rules.  He talks about the pivotal chess match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, when the computer beat the chess master.  Computers are good at chess, he says, where the rules are finite and defined, but not at something like poker, which is dominated by human elements.  Remember that Daisey has previously made the connection between the tarot deck and a standard deck of cards.  As more information comes out, it will become clear that the chess metaphor used in this episode is really in regards to the story’s as-yet-unrevealed villain – hence:  “The DEVIL Always Plays to a Draw.”  Daisey’s antagonist is playing chess, while Daisey himself is playing poker.

The Grey Lady, Elaine, also struggles to figure out the game.  Decades ago she became the human personification of the New York Times.  Now she sits in her penthouse, alone except for the conjured phantasm of a beloved dog, and comes to grips with the direness of the situation.  Despite all the pieces she has on the board, all the ghostly reporters she’s called in from bygone eras and all the data flowing to her mystically from every Times journalist across the world, she cannot even see the face of her opponent – that nondescript male face that Barnum showed Jack and Mary Jane.  He’s the “big bad,” to use the parlance of Buffy, and it seems now that he has also kidnapped Daisey’s wife, Jean-Michele.

Whoever he is, the Lady has gathered enough information to know that her opponent has a sophisticated understanding of corporate strategy and that he is powerful enough to move things around mystically; he manipulated events so that Livia, the 16-year-old “Daughter of the Moon,” would be the tribute sent by the Lady to the vampires, which caused the explosion downtown.  “This was actually like a Twenty-First century job,” Daisey says as the Lady ruminates, “And that’s what terrified her.  Because she didn’t want to admit it, but she was a Twentieth century girl.”  The Grey Lady, whose preeminence had already been on the downslope, knows she cannot hope to win a match against this enemy.  I will be able to talk a little more about what I think Daisey is up to once the identity of the big bad has been revealed, but anyone listening can surely hear Daisey’s interest in how venerable institutions like the Times must fight to remain relevant in age of light-speed media and instant news.

In the main narrative, meanwhile, Daisey has been forced into alliance with Phil, his onetime magic instructor and, Daisey suspects, the man who killed his friend Gibbs.  Its text book action movie territory; he hates Phil, but right now he needs him.  Towards the end, Daisey receives a cryptic call from his mother, who we met in an earlier episode.  She randomly informs him that she was adopted from a hospital on Staten Island and that she’s been worried  “black ice” on the road lately – a Maine-specific metaphor for unseen dangers ahead.

Earlier in the episode, Daisey describes a scenario where an endgame seemed inevitable.  He recalls a trip to Europe and Istanbul, when a bout of intense depression created a momentary standoff between him and Jean-Michele.  He speaks beautifully about the realities of coming out of depression:

That’s the thing about depression.  When you start coming out of it you realize that the sun was always on you.  The sun was always on you. Nothing has actually changed, except you changed.  You can feel it.  And that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t real.  It means that the hardest thing had to be altered, which is not where you were sitting with respect to the sun, it is whether you can feel the sun at all.

This is important point for Daisey’s story – depression feels like checkmate.  It feels like you reached the prearranged endpoint, but even then you can come back.  Even then – perhaps only then – victory is possible.

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