Author One-on-One: Jennifer duBois and Justin Torres
Justin Torres is the author of the novel, We the Animals. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, and other publications.
Justin Torres: I knew very little about chess going in, but found it to be one of the most fascinating elements of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about the role of chess--not just in terms of plot but as an overarching conceit?
Jennifer duBois: I'd always been interested in chess, and I thought it served as an apt metaphor for both the political and the philosophical concerns of the book--Irina and Aleksandr are both, and with varying degrees of possible success, trying to outmaneuver pretty formidable opponents. On a structural level, the alternating chapters have something of the feel of a chess game--Irina moves, Aleksandr moves. And, without giving too much away, I think the ending has a certain chess logic to it.
Justin Torres: You use time brilliantly and quite differently for Irina and Aleksandr: Aleksandr's story takes place over thirty years, whereas Irina's story covers only two. How did you arrive at this structure?
Jennifer duBois: Because Irina knows she has this diagnosis in front of her, I wanted her to move through time more slowly; her attention to the world around her actually heightens as the book nears its end. Her journey, at least initially, is a bit subtler than Aleksandr's--she's grappling with mortality, with trying to find meaning and beauty in a finite time span. And as Aleksandr begins to confront those same challenges, time starts to move more slowly for him, too, until the two characters are moving through the novel together side by side.
Justin Torres: I loved the unconventional friendship Irina and Aleksandr forge. Their situations share some deep underlying parallels. How do you see Irina and Aleksandr's relationship working for each of them?
Jennifer duBois: There's the obvious parallel that they both fear for their lives, which unites them. But because their circumstances are different, they have different things to teach and learn from each other. Irina admires Aleksandr's energy and willingness to work for something outside of himself, because she's spent so much time sort of waiting out her life. Meeting Aleksandr forces Irina to realize that some people put their own lives at risk on purpose, because there are things worth doing that for. And Aleksandr admires Irina's fearlessness. He takes so many precautions that he winds up feeling trapped, and he sees that Irina's situation has been in some ways liberating for her--that it's driven her toward a more interesting and daring life. And in the end, it's the strange freedom of Irina's situation that allows her to be useful..
“[An] astonishingly beautiful and brainy debut novel . . . Against the backdrop of Russia’s recent political past, duBois conjures the briefly intersecting lives of two intriguingly complex strangers—prickly, introspective, and achingly lonely—who are nevertheless kindred spirits. Her prose is both apt and strikingly original . . . So how do we proceed when defeat is inevitable? The stunning novel suggests an answer: We just do. Perseverance, it seems, is its own kind of victory.” —O: The Oprah Magazine
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"Gorgeous . . . DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. She has an equal grasp of politics and history, the emotional nuances of her complex characters, and the intricacies of chess. Irina and Aleksandr are difficult people, prickly and formidable, but they’re also sympathetic and flawed, vulnerable and human. DuBois’ evocations of Russia are lush, and her swashbuckling descriptions, whether of chess games, a doomed political campaign, or the anticipation of death, are moving yet startlingly funny—full of bravado, insight, and clarity. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a thrilling debut by a young writer who evidently shares the uncanny brilliance of her protagonists.” —Kate Christensen, Elle
"Jennifer duBois's first novel is a meticulously constructed tale of intertwining destinies. Irina, a young American facing an unbearable diagnosis, and Aleksandr, a former Soviet chess champion turned dissident politician, are brought together by a long-forgotten letter that asks how to carry on with a lost cause. Ranging from Massachusetts to Moscow and covering several decades, A Partial History of Lost Causes abounds and fascinates with dark wit and poignant insight, chess and politics, frozen rivers and neon nightclubs.” —Maggie Shipstead, Salon
“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented. I wish I were her.”—Gary Shteyngart
“An amazing achievement—a braiding of historical, political, and personal, each strand illuminating the other. Wonderful characters, elusive glimpses of wisdom, and a gripping story that accelerates to just the right ending.”—Arthur Phillips
“Thrilling, thoughtful, strange, gorgeous, political, and deeply personal, Jennifer duBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes is a terrific debut novel. In prose both brainy and beautiful, she follows her characters as they struggle to save each other. This is a book to get lost in.”—Elizabeth McCracken
“By what exquisite strategy did duBois settle on this championship permutation of literary moves? Her debut is a chess mystery with political, historical, philosophical, and emotional heft, a paean to the game and the humans who play it. DuBois probes questions of identity, death, art, and love with a piercing intelligence and a questing heart.”—Heidi Julavits
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)