April 6, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
A Partial History of Lost Causes is a brilliant debut novel by Jennifer duBois that works on many levels. Historical, personal, political, and philosophical themes are elegantly explored through two complex and unforgettable narrators, a woman just diagnosed with a disease that killed her father and a politically insurgent former Russian chess champion.
The New Yorker wrote of the book:
"Spinning an ambitious plot, unpredictable but never improbable, she moves between points of view, continents, histories, and sympathies with a magician’s control."
A Partial History of Lost Causes follows two very different characters confronting the same essential question. Aleksandr Bezetov is a Russian chess champion turned political dissident launching a doomed campaign against Vladimir Putin. Irina Ellison is a thirty-year-old academic who is positive for Huntington's disease, the degenerative illness that she watched kill her father. Knowing she's only a few years away from the onset of her symptoms, Irina runs away to Russia to ask Aleksandr a question: how do you proceed when a cause is lost? Aleksandr doesn't know, either. But in meeting each other, they both get an answer.
1) "Sympathy for the Devil," The Rolling Stones: "I was around in St. Petersburg/When I saw it was a time for a change…"
"I was given to believe Comrade Stalin was a man of some stature."—Aleksandr, Chapter 1
2) "There's No Such Place," Augie March: "There's no such place. Oh yes, I have seen it too, just a little different from how you do…"
3) "Locomotive," Alex Winston: "I wish I cared about the things you cared about, but I don't. Your scrill and the bars and the lake and the stars, but I don't…"
My major character flaw is an inability to invest in lost causes. When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life.—Irina, Chapter 2
4) "The Laws Have Changed," The New Pornographers: "It was crime at the time but the laws we changed 'em…Alone in the chain it remains to be seen how well you can play when a pawn takes a queen now...What'll be revealed today, when you peer through the great unknown from the line to the throne?…Form a line to the throne."
"KGB has asked you a question, and here you will be giving an answer."—Aleksandr, Chapter 5
5) "Fight Test," The Flaming Lips: "I thought I was smart, I thought I was right, I thought it better not to fight…"
He tried to explain that this was all that was left for him now. He tried to explain that it was the only pragmatic course of action…. The dead could afford to be morally self-righteous. Everyone else just had to manage.—Aleksandr, Chapter 11
6) "Deep Blue," Arcade Fire: "We watched the end of a century/compressed on a tiny screen."
And then he'd resigned. He might not have been smart enough to beat a computer, but he was smart enough to know when he was beaten by a computer. –Chapter 16
7) "The Plains/Bitter Dancer," Fleet Foxes: "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/like a snowflake unique among snowflakes/unique in each way you can see/but now after some thinking/I see I'd rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me."
Three weeks later, he announced his intention to seek the presidency of the Russian federation.—Aleksandr, Chapter 13
8) "Repatriated," Handsome Furs: "I've seen the future and it's coming in low/I will never be repatriated."
"We are running to lose," said Bezetov. "And in the losing, we are running to be notice." –Chapter 16
9) "Moskau," Dschingis Khan: "Moscow, Moscow, ho ho ho ho ho…"
And then we were smashing into the splendor of downtown Moscow at night. All around us there were beautiful women wearing almost nothing but lurid makeup and waiting in long lines outside of pulsing clubs. They looked absolutely terrifying, as well as freezing cold.—Irina, Chapter 16
10) "Strangers," The Kinks: "And if I live too long I'm afraid I'll die."
11) "Bluebird of Happiness," Mojave 3: "Running for your life won't get you so far."
"Death threats," he said. "All for me."
"Oh." I looked at him. I understand that he wasn't trying to make me feel better—or worse, for that matter—but that he was only sharing with me a common reality…It was the acknowledgment of the truest and most terrible thing about us—not the only thing but the thing everybody else tried to ignore. –Irina, Chapter 16
12) "The Modern Leper," Frightened Rabbit: "Well, I am ill, but I'm not dead."
13) "Need You Now," Cut Copy: "I know we're going crazy, but I need you now—to fight somehow."
If I went to Perm, and if we found something important, then at least there would be that…There would be an excuse for this lifetime.—Irina, Chapter 18
14) "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," Neutral Milk Hotel: "And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea. But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see."
The beauty of the sky and the clouds—the miracle of morning, the heresy of aviation.—Irina, Chapter 20
15) "After the Curtain," Beirut: "What can you do when the curtain falls? You'll left, right. Left, right."
And one day in Russia, he says. One day in Russia, too.—Aleksandr, Chapter 21
Jennifer duBois and A Partial History of Lost Causes links:
Dallas Morning News review
The House Next Door review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Time Out New York review
Wall Street Journal review
The Washington Independent Review of Books review
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