After her father’s death from Huntington’s-related causes, Irina Ellison, the sometime narrator of A Partial History of Lost Causes, roots through his old things and unearths a photocopy of a letter he once wrote to the then-rising chess superstar Aleksander Bezetov, a Kasparov-like figure who becomes world champion at age 19. The meat of the letter contains a disarmingly capital-T thematic question: How do you proceed in the face of impending doom? (“Clearly,” Irina decides, “he must have been thinking a lot about fate when he wrote the letter.”) Bezetov, of course, never writes back, and Irina, having inherited her father’s condition and faced now with the onset of her own doom, flees her stagnant New England life and makes for Russia to track down the fading chess superstar in search of the answer.
Irina isn’t above admitting the lack of sense in what she calls her “last adventure,” and even further explicates the novel’s reading-discussion guide in her own head, comparing the decision to a move in a chess match, but the difficulty in understanding what she hopes will be the move’s ultimate consequences have less to do with the suddenness of it or with the obvious-to-everyone probability that Bezetov, no matter how wizened, won’t have the miracle words to make her content with her lot in life; it’s simply the brevity of the setup that makes it all a little hard to read into—that she’s able to track down the woman she believes to be Bezetov’s former assistant in her first round of telephone calls, that money happens to not to be an issue, that the acts of leaving her five-page boyfriend and one-page mother merit nothing like a scene. It is a chess move, but despite Irina’s perhaps career-appropriate tendency toward over-explaining (she’s a college teacher), it’s a move made in response to a network of such vaguely recalled stuff that it exceeds its tenuous context and ends up seeming almost flippant.
And it does make some sense to hurry her off to Russia, where, with the exception of a Harvard Square chess-winning fixture named Lars, the novel’s most compelling pieces live. It’s in Russia that political intrigue and professional chess and widespread poverty are all introduced into the story, and the author displays remarkable sensitivity in developing Irina’s forward-moving plan in surroundings where introspection can so easily whither. For a long time, none of the above seems capable of shutting off the voice in her head, but as true as this may remain to Irina’s character, it also deflects the narrative arc from richer territory. Bezetov’s match against the computer Deep Blue, an encounter busy enough for its own novel, receives a passing glance; Bezetov’s hiring of Irina into his crude political campaign, a complex decision upon which the story depends, just kind of happens in the course of a conversation, much like Irina’s own decision to move to Russia in the first place, and it can’t be a good sign that the two of them wonder repeatedly about their reasons for willing themselves together for the duration of the novel, well after the inevitable has happened.
Beyond replicating the back-and-forth nature of chess with an alternating chapter structure, A Partial History of Lost Causes turns out to bear a close resemblance to the experience of watching a chess match unfold. The story begins on the Neva and ends on the Charles, evoking the flow of arranged figures at either side of a board. Everything is cold, and a heaviness of spirit pervades, and a lot of visible thought takes place, resulting in a sequence of movement that, no matter how brooded over, always happens too fast to see coming until it’s too late. There are some brilliant passages and more compulsive ones, culminating in an ending as quick and satisfying as a checkmate—defeat finally having arrived for one, and survival continued for the other.
Jennifer DuBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes will be released on March 20 by the Dial Press. To purchase it, click here.