Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes: To Live Is To Die

Jennifer Dubois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, is one of the more artfully written novels I've read in a long time. Here's an example of one of the many passages that exhibits Dubois' talent:
"…and an overgenerous fractured light came in through the windows. It was the kind of light that seemed to be throwing itself at your feet to beg for mercy. Or maybe the kind that falls down on its own knife in the name of honor.”
Dubois' characters seem to see a cruel, corrupt, perhaps hopeless world in these beautiful, poetic terms — and it's almost enough to distract them, and the reader, from the fact that their lives (and our lives!) are, at their most base, lost causes — because, quite obviously, we're all going to die. That's true, whether you're the victim of a debilitating disease like Huntington's that causes you to lose your sense of self, or whether you've devoted what remains of your life to a conviction that has no chance of success.

The former describes Irina Ellison, the 30-year-old Bostonian whose father lost himself, and then died of Huntington's disease. And doctor's have suggested the hereditary disease will hit her at about age 32 — so the clock is ticking on Irina remaining who she has come to know as herself. "When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life," she says.

The latter describes the other protagonist (the novel is told in chapters alternating between the two characters' points of views, like chess moves) a chess prodigy named Aleksandr Bezetov, who we first meet in the early 1980s, moving to Leningrad to attend a chess academy. Aleksandr alternates in life between political conviction and the decadent lifestyle his fame as a chess champion affords."...his whole life had been about trying — and failing — to come to grips with the inevitable."

The touchstone for the plot is that Irina finds a letter her chess-playing father, who followed Aleksandr's career closely, had written to Aleksandr asking him what he does when, in the course of a game of chess, he knows he's going to lose. How does he deal with a game that's a lost cause? The life-chess metaphor is one we follow through the rest of the novel, as Irina decides to run away from her life in Boston to go to Russia (it's 2006 now) to track Aleksandr down and find the answer to her father's question — since she's soon to be in the same predicament.

The story itself, while interesting, isn't nearly as strong as the words used to tell it. But this is still a joy to read — and it's not just the illusory, imaginative passages that make it so. It's also how Dubois constructs the theme of hopelessness to make it feel somehow hopeful, and how Dubois' writing exhibits a sagacity and insightfulness you'd expect from a much, much older writer. (Dubois is 29, and was recently named by The National Book Foundation as one of its 5 under 35 honorees.) An example:
"...and that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would."
I read this novel slowly — both to savor the writing, but also because the writing (and story) has to be taken in short doses to appreciate fully. But I'd highly recommend this for fans of smart literary fiction. 

(Thanks to Bookish Habits for the giveaway, from which I was lucky enough to win this great novel!)


  1. Oh I didn't realize the author was that young. While the chess plot doesn't interest me that much, I am a bit curious to try the writer out.

  2. Sounds lovely - my library recommended this also.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the novel. It's probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed the writing, the themes and the uniqueness of the story so much that I recommend it to every remotely compatible reader I come across.