The title of Jennifer Dubois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, is a reference to a clandestine journal of culture and politics disseminated amongst a small readership of pro-democracy dissidents during the waning years of Soviet Russia. Its typical contents include poetry, literary criticism, and a catalogue of government abuses against the Russian citizenry: arrests for ‘disseminating falsehood’, imprisonments for ‘malicious parasitism’, and searches for all manner of anti-Party conspiracy.
The victims of these actions are the lost causes for whom the journal is named, and the irony of the title is that it can only be a matter of time before the journal itself will fall prey to the silencing forces of the Communist regime. The impassioned and idealistic dissidents who publish the journal are well aware of this fact, and yet they continue to voice their opposition to the Party in their own small and ill-fated way. One of these young men, however, will rise improbably against these odds to become the world champion of chess, an ambivalent figure of Russian national pride at the anticlimactic dusk of the Cold War era, and it is his story that forms one of two central narratives within Dubois’s intellectually ravenous and emotionally complex work.
The character, Aleksander Bezetov, is modeled on Garry Kasparov, who in recent years has used his stature as perhaps the greatest chess player of all time to mount a pro-democratic, pro-free market political campaign in opposition to the corruption and criminality that prevailed under the Putin regime. Bezetov finds himself suddenly middle aged, having achieved the level of undisputed greatness as a chess player that he always longed for. But in the process of achieving this goal, he has lost everything that once mattered to him.
He feels trapped in his own life with the weight of a loveless marriage and his own guilt over betraying the ideals of his youth bearing down on him more and more each day. His considerable material success brings no solace, and even chess, the game that once obsessed him, brings no joy. After a highly publicized defeat at the hands of an IBM computer, he would later go on to declare that “if there had ever been a point to chess… it was conclusively defeated by the revelation that all chess problems of the world could be unscrambled unconsciously by robot neurons firing into the void”.
Bezetov’s response to this crisis of identity and conviction is to plunge himself completely into the cause of politics, spearheading a broad coalition of anti-corruption and pro-democracy constituent parties under the unifying banner of ‘Alternative Russia’. He positions himself as a potential challenger for the Russian presidency, beset upon exposing the mercenary criminality of the Putin regime and accusing the government of conspiracy, as well as countless politically motivated assassinations and terrorist acts.
In so doing, Bezetov himself becomes the target of an endless barrage of violent threats, to the point at which he must sequester himself under 24-hour guarded surveillance, never leaving his St. Petersburg apartment except to deliver speeches at political rallies and marches. His presidential campaign, which has no reasonable chance at victory, and has rather taken on the form of a indeterminate death sentence for Bezetov, becomes just another lost cause, harkening back to his youthful days distributing the journal through the streets of Leningrad.
But this is not the only lost cause that forms the contours of DuBois’s novel. The other belongs to a young American woman, whose life veers into an unlikely intersection with Bezetov’s that will ultimately determine each of their fates, and presents the unanswerable question of how one is to live when one’s own life reveals itself to be a lost cause.
When we first meet Irina Ellison, she is watching her father succumb to Huntington’s disease. It’s a process made all the more excruciating by the fact that he is, to her, a man defined especially by his brain. He is “a mind, first and foremost, and a mind is an elaborate system of pulleys and levers and delicate balances. And when one piece is missing, the whole system has lost its integrity”. During the course of her father’s unraveling, which is detailed with heart breaking specificity, a result undoubtedly of Dubois’s own experience of a father with Alzheimer’s disease, Ellison goes in to get tested for her own genetic disposition for the disease. She learns, then in her early 20s, that by the time she is 32 years old, she will have a 50 percent chance of becoming symptomatic.
This realization compels her, at first, to embark on a journey of garden variety recklessness throughout her college years — partying too hard, having casual sex with multiple partners — embracing a youthful brand of fatalistic narcissism that compels her to wish at one point “Please let me get AIDS so I can die of pneumonia, so my brain is the last thing out the door, so that when I die, it is actually me dying and not somebody else”. But later, after her father has passed, after she has pulled it together enough to earn both a BA in philosophy and a PhD in comparative literature, she discovers an old forgotten letter while going through her father’s things that places her life on a new trajectory, and endows her with a renewed sense of purpose.
Her father, who was an avid chess player and fan of the young Aleksander Bezetov, wrote the then rising chess star a deeply personal letter during the time that he was struggling with the inevitability of his own Huntington’s diagnosis. In this letter he tells Bezetov “I feel I have a certain affinity with you, I suppose, because I’m fighting my own complicated match these days — and am, I fear, nearing the bitterest of losses”. He goes on to address a question to Bezetov, regarding those few matches in which he must have been certain of his own defeat: “When you find yourself playing in such a match… what is the proper way to proceed? What story do you tell yourself when the enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape up against the edges of your own self”?
The letter was not answered by Bezetov, but by some underling who said that the chess master was unable to respond to her father’s query at that time. At the time that she discovers the letter, Irina is struggling to answer this very question for herself, and so she decides to leave her life in the US — her mother who sacrificed so much to care for her father and a boyfriend whom she cannot allow herself to ever fully love with the knowledge of how it will one day end — and travel to Russia to find Aleksander Bezetov and discover his answer. What she finds is that Bezetov himself, doomed by certain political defeat and the increasing likelihood of his own assassination, has, in many ways, become a living answer to her father’s question.
DuBois’s novel is a deeply insightful excavation of the meaning and certainty of death, and the strange capacity for hope and beauty that its permanence can shed upon the transient experience of life. She renders her story through a graceful confluence of intellectual and emotional honesty that, despite the dark nature of her subject matter, manages to be uplifting and inspiring, an act that is achieved through the unsentimental portrayal of her flawed, funny and frustrating characters and her own masterful use of language. In this exemplary passage, Ellison reflects upon the things that she will miss when she is gone, as her death grows nearer with each passing day:
“I parse the differing threads of my own loss, I savor the nuances of this particular disaster. How I will miss my own brand of clutching materialism, the treasured sensory joys of existence. Not only the transcendent, transporting vista or symphony or epic or orgasm, though there were those. There were also — just as much — the humble pleasures of getting enough sleep or eating a really good sandwich… There was the way the world could tilt slightly sideways, even when you thought all of its potential positions were already known… How I will miss all of this. But then I remind myself of the obvious point — realized again and again but never fully believed even now — that there will be no missing of anything, worthy or unworthy, at all.”
The fact that DuBois is crafting passages with this kind of affective and philosophical substance while still in her 20s should let everybody who is concerned about the future of the novel breath a little sigh of relief. It seems that our young generation has already produced a burgeoning master of the form.