Authors: Jennifer Dubois
Tags: #General Fiction
A Partial History of Lost Causes
is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer duBois
Reading group guide copyright © 2012 by Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by The Dial Press,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.,
and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Random House Reader’s Circle and Design is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
A partial history of lost causes / by Jennifer duBois.
1. Chess players—Russia (Federation)—Fiction. I. Title.
Cover design: Anna Bauer
Cover image: Marc Schlossman/Millennium Images, UK
We are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others
Ada, or Ardor
And if in this wide world I die, then I’ll die from joy that I’m alive
Leningrad, Russia, 1979
hen Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great gray span of the Neva. The river was a churning organ in the city’s center—not its heart, surely, something more practical and less sentimental but just as necessary. The amygdala, maybe, or both kidneys. It had been six days from Okha—on a boat and then a train—and out the window he’d seen the entire country: first the teetering spires of Sakhalin’s drilling rigs, as familiar to Aleksandr as his own dreams; then the abandoned green train at the port, melting into the sand ever since the war with the Japanese; then the ten thousand salmon rotting in the sun on the eastern shore, waiting for Moscow to telegram permission for their loading; then the curling stems of smoke above the villages that were impossibly far apart (he never knew he’d been living in a country this enormous all along). He saw deconsecrated cathedrals, miners with faces black and hard as their coal, great shoals of stunted grass and bleached sky. By the time he arrived at Moskovsky Vokzal, he thought he’d just about seen enough. He knew he should be grateful. The trip to Leningrad had required months of bureaucratic maneuvering, papers acquired and signed and lost, attempts and
reattempts and bribes from Andronov, the man who would be Aleksandr’s trainer at the academy. Finally, one day, Aleksandr’s entry visa had arrived—with all the randomness of a June snowstorm or a plague of falling frogs—and that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would.
And on the tracks—amid the screeches of braking trains and departing lovers, and the coiling smells of grease and cigarettes and cooking oil and acrid cologne—he almost lost his nerve. He almost wanted to drop his luggage on the track and ride the train all the way back to the Pacific, although his only chess set was in his rucksack and he was nearly out of bribe money. As the train had pulled into the station, the man next to him announced to the entire car that today was Stalin’s centenary. Everybody around looked quickly away. But here was the evidence: Sinopskaya Naberezhnaya was overrun with police, their uniforms striking red and gold against the horrible white sun. They were there to make sure nobody got too mouthy or too festive.
“Papers?” A policeman was behind him; his tone suggested that Aleksandr had already ruined his day. Aleksandr drew his hand against his eyes, and delicate grains of soot fell from his eyebrows. Just over one of the policeman’s gargantuan shoulders, Aleksandr caught snatches of the green-gray Neva. Its stark and sturdy arm put the city in a headlock, he thought, or held it up like an osteoporotic backbone.
“Papers?” the policeman said again. His chinstrap was digging into his prodigious neck, and his gilt cockade flashed in the sun. Aleksandr rifled in his rucksack. When he produced his papers, the policeman appraised them with a sour look and tapped his nightstick against his thigh.
“Sakhalin?” he said. “Did you take the wrong train?”
And Aleksandr thought: It’s a real possibility.
“No? Do you talk? Never mind. I don’t care. Go on. I’m sure you know what day it is.”
Aleksandr did know. And he was starting to decide about the Neva, too: really, it was the brain. Not the part of the brain that thinks up sonnets or show-offy chess moves; not the part that sighs sorrowfully in corners and reads Solzhenitsyn and wonders what it all can mean.
It was the part that tells you to fuck, to run from things, to live, even when your better nature tells you not to.
Years later, after Aleksandr stopped playing chess and started playing politics, the city would become something altogether different. Bored women with absent eyebrows in Turkish silk bobbed in the lines outside nightclubs, pouring vodka of insane expense into the snow and laughing. Enormous billboards and neon signs made stamps of light against the sky, advertising dreams and attitudes and lifestyles of varying degrees of attainability. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg became a place to make and blow loads of cash—there were businesses and ladies enough for industrious men to conquer. Eventually, chess became something different also—once Aleksandr became the world champion and his brilliance was remarked upon so often that it became tedious. This was how somebody with some kind of unusual beauty—enchanting mismatched eyes, impossibly red hair—must feel: after a while, receiving extra credit for something so arbitrary becomes a burden. Chess was a part of him, no different from his poor posture or homely face. And chess became a humiliation and an indictment in the end—after he’d lost the title and his better moments were forgotten but his one best moment, that one best game, still hung over him, preceded him always, like a leper’s bell. He was very good for a while, and then something else was better.
But when he was young, he’d had a whole life to imagine.
Stumbling out into the day from the train station felt like emerging from imprisonment only to be lined up against the wall and shot. Aleksandr made his way to his kommunalka first, picking through throngs of stern-looking people, and several small children tried to steal from him before he even made it out onto the street. He followed his careful directions to himself and kept a dumb, hyper-focused attention on his papers. The number of people here was staggering, and more people than lived in the entirety of Okha stepped on Aleksandr’s feet before he made it to his new building.
The building was three stories tall and looked, from a distance, like a pile of cinders. In the packed brown snow of the front yard, a very young man stood next to an overturned trunk. The trunk’s lid was
unhinged like a half-open jaw, and its contents were splattered across the yard; clearly, it had recently been thrown down the blocky staircase. On the stoop stood a gray-curled old lady in a red housecoat. From the way she was shaking her fist at the young man, Aleksandr figured she was the steward. Up close, he could see that the front door—formerly red, he thought—was splintering. The windows above it were welded shut.
“Excuse me,” said Aleksandr. “I’m moving in today.”
The steward ignored him. “Go away,” she said to the young man with the trunk. “Go away and never come back.”
And Aleksandr thought: Maybe it’s not too late.
The steward handed Aleksandr his keys. In the kitchen, the rusty communal sink smelled of urine. An older woman in a bathrobe, her hair piled implausibly into a towel, was making toast underneath the exposed piping. On the other side of the kitchen hung decadent skeins of ladies’ panty hose. On the bathroom shower curtain, bright green frogs frolicked between patches of black mold. In the hallway, a sign admonished the tenants not to hang up their underwear outside.