A Partial History of Lost Causes (Random House) is one of those books that has been on my to-be-read shelf since we first got the advanced copy for the store, sometime in early 2012. Our buyer Jason read it and loved it, and at least one author, while scanning the books in our green room (which also doubles as our break room), noted that duBois wrote rings around her fellow students in grad schools.
I knew the novel was edited by David Ebershoff, who often likes books that play with structure and timelines, with a couple of interwoven storylines, and have no problem weaving several themes together in unusual ways. Of course I'm thinking about David Mitchell here (the group read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) but also The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson's novel from last year which recently was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle award.
Oh, and in addition to Jason, I always pay attention to the recommendations of my once fellow bookseller Dave Mallmann. I found his quote on the author's website.
"A Partial History of Lost Causes seems to assert that everything we strive for in life is likely to be, ultimately, a lost cause. But then why is the book so beautiful, so hopeful, so full of life? The beauty, hope, and vitality are all conveyed in the telling of this gorgeous story, rather than in the outcome. Such an important book coming from such a young writer should give us all hope in the glorious lost cause of American fiction."
The tapestry is unwoven thusly. Strand one is a narrative of Aleksandr Bezetov, who rises from a poor upbringing in Sakhalin (Russia's largest island, I just learned) to attend a chess academy, where he quickly outplays not just his fellow students, but his master. He eventually rises to world champion with only a few roadblocks (the KGB, a computer) getting in his way.
I'd feel like I am giving away plot here, but the thing to note is that his chess life closely follows that of Garry Kasparov. But after that falls away, he decides to run for president as an opposition party candidate. This does not go over well in the Putin administration. (A side note--the subtle differences in the hardcover jacket. Type change, less yellow, a human being appearing.)
At the same time, Irina Ellison's story (her life is told as backstory, not chronologically, and in the first person past tense, not the third-person of Aleksandr) also involves chess. She's living in Cambridge, teaching, having just weathered the slow decline of her father to Huntington's Disease. She knows she has a good chance of developing it herself, and when she discovers an unfinished corresponsence between her father and Aleksandr, she decides to go to Russia to track him down and ask him for his answers.
Now it's not necessarily easy to converse with a political candidate, and an American who suddenly becomes interested in the opposition party is likely to be suspect. Though her mom's escaped caregiving for a new life in the West, she leaves behind a boyfriend and chess partner, who plays with her in a Cambridge park.
Aleksandr has also left people behind. There's the seeming prositute he had an affair with in his old communal apartment, and some friends with whom he printed and distributed a controversial journal, named of course, Partial History of Lost Causes.
So there are a lot of lost causes floating around here. The journal, the opposition candidacy in a corrupt government, the likelihood of a disease that cannot be tamed, and any number of chess games. And that's really the question floating around, "how do you play the game of life when the outcome is a lost cause?"
The consensus is that we admired Jennifer duBois's novel, and S. really loved it and felt there were a lot of folks in her life to whom she could recommended it. Most of us thought the writing was great (there as at least one notable exception in R., and J. while liking it, was jabbed at by a couple of things, such as a lot of usage of the word "clinical.") Thematically the book made a great discussion. A lot of us love a book that spells out in novel form what we never quite understood from news reports. You certainly get the idea of what Russia has been like since the fall of communism in the story.
But I include that use of the word clinical to note why some of us who wanted to love the book found ourselves more in admiration. There's a bit of distance with the characterization, definitely with the ancillary characters, but even with Irina and Aleksandr. Of course the entire story is a battle of intellect vs emotion (an emotional take on these questions would involve phrases like "going for it" and a lot less second guessing), and I think that the questions duBois is answering are at their heart intellectual. It's not that I don't like this kind of story, because I do. It's just that I fear that my limit on an intellecual exercise is 250 pages, and after that, my desire for stronger connectivity kicks in.
Isn't it a little strange how I'm talking about a book club discussion and it winds up being not about the group's thoughts, or the book itself, but my needs? Typical selfish take, I'd say.
There's some gentle humor in this story, but the 11 of us who attended and finished the book (there were at least three who didn't finish and I don't count them) all agreed that we didn't agree with the book being called "hilarious" on the jacket. On another note, I think there was at least 75% agreement that the ending really worked well, and that's a hard thing to accomplish.
Next month we're meeting early to discuss Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, mostly so we can attend Walter's talk afterwards. Then we go back to our regular schedule.
Discussion for Monday, May 6, 6 pm:
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Discussion for Monday, June 3, 7 pm:
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain