Monday, April 9, 2012
Not long ago, I was asked in a radio interview what I might do if confronted with the situation my character, Irina, finds herself in A Partial History of Lost Causes. Given a diagnosis of impending Huntington’s disease--the fatal neurological disease that she’d watched slowly kill her father—Irina runs away from her life. She leaves her boyfriend and mother and job and friends, and she goes to Russia to ask Aleksandr Bezetov (a chess champion turned dissident, loosely based on Garry Kasparov) a pretty abstract question: how should one proceed when the cause is lost? In the book, the tenuousness of Irina’s links to her life—most importantly, her relationships—allows her to go on this strange last adventure. Might I do something similar, the interviewer asked, if I were in Irina’s shoes? How might I look for meaning? I said that I’d have to run away to Russia to find Garry Kasparov, of course, but that was not at all true. The question made me contemplate Irina’s profound and distinctive isolation, and the ways in which this feature of her character enables the book’s plot. And the experience of promoting Partial History has reminded me (as if I could ever forget), how very different I am from Irina on this score—and how the existence of the book itself, and Irina in particular, feels to me to be a very communal effort.
The truth is, I think I would probably do the opposite of what Irina does if I was in her situation: I imagine I would cling to my fiancé and my mother and my friends; I would tediously invest in my relationships; and though I’m sure I’d share a huge portion of Irina’s self-pity and fear, her philosophical concerns (even for a former philosophy major like myself) might, at the end of the day, turn out to be pretty low on my list of priorities. This would probably be a typical response; after all, millions of people confront the exact same diagnosis as Irina without doing anything so dramatic and self-indulgent as she does. But I wanted to write a story about someone who does do something dramatic and who is propelled by the abstract, and that meant writing a character like Irina: isolated in the extreme, at least at the book’s beginning, and unable to invest (or so she thinks) in much of anything—even though she recognizes, on some level, that her problem is really everyone’s problem (namely, mortality).
It’s been interesting, then, for me to read from the point of view of such a remote person to bookstore crowds composed overwhelmingly of my relatives and teachers and friends and friends of friends and parents and cousins and in-laws of friends, many of whom contributed to the book in ways known and unknown to them: the Iowa classmate who gave me brilliant line edits and the fourth grade teacher who let me write stories with spelling words instead of taking spelling tests; the Stanford colleague who directly solved a second chapter problem and the great college friend/ghost publicist who tirelessly promoted the book to everyone, everywhere; the hugely talented high school buddy who took my author photo and the inspiring history teacher who pushed me to deal with my public speaking fear; the tireless Alzheimer’s home health aide, who gave Irina her pragmatism; my widowed mother and widowed aunt, who gave Irina her resilience.
In A Partial History of Lost Causes, Irina’s isolation grants her a freedom to do things that—at least narratively, and at least to my mind—are more interesting than the things that most normal, reasonably socialized people might do in her place. So I’m glad that Irina is a solitary person. But I’m also glad that I’m not. Because standing behind Irina—even though she doesn’t know it—is an entire army of people I’ve learned from and loved. And they have made both of us possible.