2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35: Jennifer duBois, A Partial History of Lost Causes
November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
If you’re interested in stories about what can be done in a short lifetime, the history of chess is not a bad place to look – it’s populated almost entirely by people who were at their best when they were barely out of adolescence. There’s Bobby Fischer, of course, thought hat story ends badly (with lunacy, exile in Iceland, and anti-Semitism) and Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine, though that story ends badly, too (with alcoholism, erratic behavior, and more anti-Semitism). Then there’s Aleksandr Kimovich Bezetov, who was the USSR chess champion by the time he was nineteen, and the world chess champion by the time he was twenty-two. His is a sad story, too, in some ways, although I didn’t know that when I ran away to Russia to find him. (p. 18)
“How does one proceed in a lost cause?” With this question, first asked by co-narrator Irina Ellison’s father years before his death from Huntington’s Disease to chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov, Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, derives not only its name but also its raison d’être. Some of best stories involve those who know that they have no hope, yet they proceed on their course regardless of their inevitable failure. It is that act of spitting into the wind of failure that makes for compelling literature, as character qualities often shine brightest in these sorts of situations.
A Partial History of Lost Causes tells two intertwined stories, that of the 30 year-old English lecturer, Irina Ellison, and the former chess champion Alexander Alekhine (who is strongly based on Gary Kasparov’s life, both in chess and in politics), who in 2007 is in the midst of launching a quixotic presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. Each is faced with insurmountable odds: Irina knows that there is a 50% chance that Huntington’s symptoms will appear by the time she is 32; Alexander knows that the entire Russian political system is tilted in favor of Putin. Each struggles to make a life out of these bad odds.
The novel covers a span of nearly 30 years, from 1979 to 2007. We see the political orientation of Alexander develop under the shadow of a celebration of Stalin’s centennial and its aftermath. Irina’s search to understand her late father’s life and how he dealt with Huntington’s leads her to discover a photocopied letter that he, a chess enthusiast, mailed to Alexander years before, asking him how he would proceed once it became evident that the match was lost. The lack of a response leads Irina to investigate further, eventually moving to Russia in 2006 in order to contact Alexander and seek an answer.
duBois does an outstanding job developing both Irina and Alexander’s characters. Using the metaphor of the chess match (there are some echoes of Nabokov here, which duBois acknowledges in an interview at the back of the book as being a literary influence), the two narrators’ lives unfold in a fashion that resembles the clash of calculation and intuition that often marks a battle between chess masters. duBois writes in an economical fashion, with each paragraph having import for the overall story. There is never the sense of maudlin dross; Irina and Alexander are determined, nearly fearless optimists who strive to do what they believe is right even when such a course is doomed for failure.
Earlier in this review I used the adjective “quixotic” to describe Alexander’s presidential campaign. Quixotic does not mean that one is blind to reality, at least not in this case. Here, it refers to a nobleness of cause that forces one to champion a “lost cause” all the way to its end, bitter as it may be. The events of the final third of A Partial History of Lost Causes are action-packed as the pawns are on their way to being crushed, yet due to the excellent character development, the two’s plights end up being memorable, with a very touching conclusion to both arcs. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a very accomplished debut novel, one of the best that I have read this year.