06 June 2006

Tsipi Keller's Jackpot

The most recent novel I’ve read is Jackpot (2004) by Tsipi Keller, the first of what is intended to be a trilogy (the second book is just out, both by Spuyten Duyvil). I’d give it a B-plus, but then that’s because I’m a teacher and that kind of evaluation comes easily to me. And any good educator should define criteria. B-plus in my gradebook suggests good effort, but just short of highest achievement.

Maggie is a single, late-twenty-something New York clerk who hates her boss and is bored with her life. She has a friend, Robin, who always seems to have more fun than Maggie does (Robin’s page 10 brag about a vacation, “I fucked my brains out,” haunts Maggie the entire novel). She also has an older work-colleague, Susan, who is more stable and sensible. Against Susan’s advice, Maggie goes with Robin on vacation to Paradise Island.

Well, Maggie shows Robin a thing or two about fucking and brains once she gets to Paradise Island. Or rather, Robin immediately shoving off on a companion’s yacht, abandoning Maggie, Maggie shows herself. It’s like The Damnation of Theron Ware, to cite a novel from a completely different context and century: a naif gets a whiff of something much too heady and then outdoes her original influence to such an extreme as to show complete misunderstanding of the nuances of selective transgression, horrifying everyone, including ultimately the protagonist herself.

The movement of the book is clean and delivers on a very deft narrative strategy – the heroine’s descent is unexpected even though, when we look backward, all the signs were there. There was her ex-husband’s ridiculous accusation that she was an alcoholic, for instance. The early exposition seems innocent, and then, ka-blam, you’re in a cesspool of vomited-up Bahama Mamas and men who are only remembered as vague spectres from the previous night, even when they appeared in teams.

This is where Jackpot might have been a more courageous novel, to my mind. The descent is perhaps too clean. I found myself thinking of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – there, the descent is painstaking, delivered in excruciating, never-anaesthetized increments. Maggie’s blackouts in Jackpot, at the gaming tables and the nightly journeys afterwards to her now solely occupied hotel room, are a little too blurry for the reader to register the full horror of what is being represented. The novel comes in at a little under 200 pages. Maybe it needed to be 250 and to linger in anterooms on the way down to hell.

But maybe we’re not in hell yet, for Keller has the next novel in the sequence, Retelling, just out. Full disclosure: I also have a book with Spuyten Duyvil this summer; Keller and I are “stablemates”.

Given that, you’d think I would have given her at least an A-minus....


Carol Novack said...

I read Jackpot because Tsipi and I were friends some years ago and I was happy to hear about the publication. But it was really hard for me to get past the first 1/3 -1/2 of the book. I found it sluggish and repetitive and whiney and the characters seemed so stereotypical, I was yawning. The book needed drastic editing, I thought. Finally, at the end it became interesting, with the horror unfolding, almost surreal in its intense ugliness. So I'm saying the opposite of what you are, Ted, in terms of length. I think the book should've been cut to long short story or novella size.

I'm not sure if I'd call the novel innovative, whatever that means (we all have our own definitions, I suppose -- mine is language, as well as image centered -- I need to hear rhythm and swoon to the sounds of words, as well as delight in surprising imagery). Jackpot is totally character driven and linguistically, the writing is not particularly exciting, though the author exhibits an appealing unAmerican sensibility, in terms of the relentlessly bleak, low key buildup.

Ted Pelton said...

Yeah, I felt the same way about the beginning of Jackpot as I was reading it, and almost put it down, but that stuff does all pay off in the end, I think, given where the character & book go.

I also am unsure if I would call it "innovative" in terms of language, but then again, it's a novel of a type that mainstream houses have a tough time doing these days. I think this may be more-or-less Spuyten Duyvil's niche, in prose, anyway (& leaving my book out of the discussion). As the mainstream presses become driven by marketing angles in their editorial choices, SD picks up straight-on serious (tho not necessarily experimental) fiction.

Would you call Coetzee's Disgrace "innovative"? It's linear narrative, representational realism. But its beauty (of a brutal sort) does not sell out to the marketplace, and that is becoming rarer and rarer. I had an argument with Kass Fleisher about this in Austin, but I would contend that while innovation is a path to the beautiful, it is beauty itself which is the goal, to my mind. Where I become doctrinaire about innovation is where I see conventionality hampering an artist's ascent to the beautiful -- which does not happen with Coetzee, whose sentences are still great, and in no fashion hackneyed (save perhaps in his critical writing).

Carol Novack said...

Hey Ted, I can't tell you whether or not I'd call Coetzee "innovative," as I haven't read it. I don't think that narrative has to be non-linear to qualify as such, but as I said, the language and rhythm should sing (for me -- totally subjective, talking off of my mad hat). I rarely speak of "beauty," so I'm hard pressed to understand innovation as a path to the beautiful or beauty as the goal, unless you're saying that language needn't sing but must lead to a song, which sounds all well and good but I don't know what I'm talking about. :-)

"Innovative" -- I prefer the words "delight," "surprise," and "dance" and the experience of "Ah, Oh, AHA, AHA, HAHA!" (I don't want use the word "revelation," as that's such a loaded religious-mystical word).

But I'd love to hear you explain what you're talking about when you speak of "beauty." When I think of beauty, I think of a poem by Rilke that I read at the celebration of my father's life -- its beauty was revelation, sigh, sadness, silence. Of course, it acheived that "beauty" via lyricism.

Anonymous said...

First, Ted et al, thanks for this blog and all your postings. I'm one of the many (so far) silent readers here, and you've all been making my brain hurt.

But hurt in that oddly pleasurable way your muscles feel after a good work-out.

I haven't read Jackpot or Disgrace so can add nothing to this discussion. (Not unless I want to engage in the kind of meta-commentary I sometimes get from my workshop students, e.g. "I didn't have time to read the manuscript, but from what you're all saying, I think..."--aka nontextual criticism, which, blush, I always get a kick out of, criticism based on criticism, let's just remove ourselves from that problematic text, though I have to remain stern in appearance, harrumph...)

But what I do wish to add is my lol at your statement:

"Where I become doctrinaire about innovation is where I see conventionality hampering an artist's ascent to the beautiful..."

I hear what you're saying, but I I have to love the irony of "doctrinaire innovation". In trying to define, we're bound to limit, no?

Just a thought.

Again, thanks to all for sharing.

Pat Rushin

Ted Pelton said...

Pat (and Carol): I mean to say doctrinaire about requiring innovation. That is to say, championing the new. Of course there are many ways and degrees of being new, and there's some merit, I think, in the argument that the new is by its very nature beautiful-- that is, if you get somewhere that in some sense hasn't been attained before, there's a strong likelihood you will have arrived at the beautiful as well.

As for beautiful, ah, well, that is very subjective, truly. But I personally embrace the long line that traces back from what I heard Robert Creeley saying in the last couple of decades -- i.e., you know it when you see it -- to Keats's formulation, which is much the same, "all you know, all you need to know," which is in a sense what the Greeks held as well about virtue, which can be seen in a work: when it appeals to your sense of what is true, alive, calling out something that has always been within you -- that is the beautiful. I think one must learn to trust oneself, one's own reading and feelings about a work, and as part of that process also try to strip away those false efforts that one has allowed to stand in for what is truly beautiful in one's lonely restless seeking after that which truly does satisfy. Because finally there's little that ultimately does satisfy such a criteria, in my experience, and one makes due with provisions.

Incidentally, Sukenick often spoke of this sense in Creeley, of RC's answer to Yeats's telling the dancer from the dance problem. I can't now find Creeley's lines, but it was something to the effect of "who wanted to know?" In other words, as Sukenick explained it, if you have to ask, you are already removing yourself from the process by which we know beauty, whichy is much more simple and direct.

But as I'm now citing passages I can't locate I'll shut up now about my touchy-feely aesthetics.

Ted Pelton said...

PS - So when Carol says "sings" she is saying what I mean by beautiful.

Lance Olsen said...

How, Ted, might a novel like Samuel Delany's Hogg—i.e., one that embraces an aesthetics of the ugly, and a sexually transgressive impulse that involves, among other things, gruesomely detailed scenes of rape and incest—fit into your notions of the innovative and the beautiful?

blonde said...


i guess what i'd like to add to this particular circuit is that there are more definitions to "the beautiful" than i see here--such as the unrefined, the base, the what-other-people-call ugly, or obscene, or transgressive, or hard...in the flowers of evil way...in the paris spleen way...in the kathy acker rimbaud ginsberg dennis cooper way...

i guess i'd say too that there are certain definitions of an ascendence toward the beautiful which have had a radically unfortunate impact on art (from my point of view) and maybe even on gender...

i guess i'd also say that i can be moved by coetzee, though i'd probably say a similarly mainstream writer like ondaatje is closer to "innovative" since my definition of innovative means a writer who wrestles with language, form, or content drastically--and neither of them do that compared to your lance olsen's, your steve tomasula's, your stacey levin's...

i guess i'd say i can't champion the beautiful as innovative practice unless it admits these detours in definition.

though i wouldn't want to take texts by coetzee or ondaatje or morrison into a dark alley with a can of whip ass, either...

love lid

Carol Novack said...

hey Ted. Blogger wouldn't let me say it before, claiming to be down for maintenance (it was a conspiracy) & now i can hardly remember all i said, but everytime i hear that cliche "you know it when you see it" (beauty, truth, GOD, good, warthogs and other absolutes which people say are of course subjective but which are really meant to be understood as absolutes), i feel as though a door is being slammed in my face. not that you meant to slam a door in my face, no not at all.

i had more to say, of no consequence i'm sure, but i can't go on & on with blogger's acting up & frustrating me, particularly on a thursday. there's only so much a sartrerian taoist atheistic existentialist like me can take, and even i nominative can take, as well. well neither of us, subjectively nor nominatively.

the generic "we" have this irritating tendency to have to define things. nothing new i'm saying, but this totalitarian regime of definitive thinking has been a focal point for me for many years. these definitions over which we wage non-violent war (eg, what is "innovative," what is the goal of our writing) afford us a way to communicate with one another, yes -- and also to form communities and factions and fractions of factions, but beyond that, i'm not sure what use they have. chuang tzu said (it is said) that everyone knows the use of the useful but few understand the use of the useless. now i'm not at all sure if that saying is of any use, but i think it's as germane as talking about beauty or truth or god or warthogs. no, i take that back. yes, warthogs.

i plead guilty to attempted definition assault with intent to commit false imprisonment and harassment of the English language. i was attempting to define that word "innovative." i must excuse myself and retire. :-)

Lance Olsen said...

You say, Carol: the generic "we" have this irritating tendency to have to define things.

But if we don't examine what we're saying, don't at least attempt to define the terms of our saying, and hence its limits as well as its possibilities, why say anything at all? Shouldn't we all simply revert to monologue or silence?

Ted Pelton said...


Blonde's definitions of the beautiful are definitely within my own ideas of what that term indicates as well. So, yes, Lance, Hogg is THERE for me. It is horrifying, but it also, in my subjective opinion, "sings."

Where the political fits? A hard problem. Personally, I can't find a politically regressive book beautiful because to my mind it doesn't tell the truth. (Gosh, I'm digging myself a deep hole here...) As to whose truth, well, I can only speak for myself, can't I? My own work, despite my waxing on about Keatsian aesthetics, is intensely involved in an attempt to dismantle the assumptions of American political hegemony, and I couldn't write otherwise. I agree with Harold Jaffe (for instance) about the necessity of a politically engaged writing, or at least that every writer has a duty in such a politicized, ugly landscape as the US has become to indicate where they stand, not necessarily in every work, but somewhere in their body of work. It's like in Kiss of the Spider Woman, where the (I can't remember that characters' names, so I'll use the actors who played them in the movie) the Raul Julia guy gets angry with the William Hurt guy because the vision of the beautiful WH is putting forth is rooted in a work of fascist art. I think the point Puig is making is that once you are aware of the bad politics, the beauty dissipates. I am certainly NOT saying that the beautiful exists outside material conditions.

I would find it very hard, indeed likely impossible, to construct an aesthetics that deals with every particular. But I do hold on to that old construct about inherently knowing beauty. And such a sense of the beautiful is also developed, is NOT simply an untutored sense, inbred, unchanging. Long ago I encountered an essay by Coleridge, "Shakespeare's Genius Equal to his Judgment," which may help define where innovation fits, or at least offer a provision. Coleridge's problem is how Shakespeare can be innovative and know where, as an artist, he is succeeding, given that he's going where no one else has gone before. He develops the notion of judgment -- Shakespeare learned his craft well enough, read extensively enough, practiced his art enough, that he developed a facultuy of knowing the aesthetic value of things he encountered in his practice that had never been encountered before. His "genius" (the new as the beautiful) was predicated on his "judgment" (what he received from the tradition as the beautiful). No such sense of judgment, to my mind, could be complete if it wasn't always willing to adjust, renew itself, redefine itself, and be responsive to new knowledges, forms, and, yes, politics.

As for the work of art, of the beautiful, that could withstand all future co-optations, such as Kass proposes: if that is impossible, it is nonetheless certainly a goal, a peak worth striving toward.

Did I get everyone? If not, I still have to go -- I am preparing for a party tonight to celebrate the publication of new own new novel (and I have earned the right to plug here, given this orals committee simulation!), Malcolm & Jack!

Peace be unto you all....

Carol Novack said...

Of course, as I said, Lance, we need definitions to communicate. And examining them carefully, rather than accepting them carte blanche without thinking about their implications is definitely conducive to rewarding interactions. I don't disagree with you, assuming I'm getting your drift. But I do get particularly frustrated by the use of culturally charged and assumption ridden conceptual words like truth and beauty and virtue and good and bad. Despite my quirky frustration (partly due to anti-authority and anti- conventional thinking traits I seem to have had since childhood) with definitions, however, I do recognize their necessity (I repeat). For me, there's an irony in this. Those words, in particular, make me squirm. It's words like these that are used by totalitarian brainwashers (no need to mention names) to bend the will of the populace.

Lance Olsen said...

Hey, Ted: a million congrats on Malcolm & Jack! It's a terrific novel, and I'm so glad to know it's officially in the world.

The rest of us at Now What will be with you in spirit tonight!!!

TThilleman said...

....duly noted, Ted, in terms of a sense of Hell being brought more thoroughly into the work. My own feeling about Hell AND Beauty is somewhere outside the Lean and Taut novel that Keller has written, as is your own appraisal of those entities, as I follow your comments here.

meaning: to get at those is not necessarily what one needs, always, to bring to any such writing that wants to describe "decadence" and a downfalling character within a downfalling world.

maybe I'm naive about the aim and arc of Keller's writing, here and in other contexts--namely that the blurry contours of first generation immigrants DO comprise the entirety of an american context.

that said, however, I agree that the ending seems a bit premature and one really wants to sadistically endure the multiple gang rapes and gambling esplanades in order to see into this strange desire that birthed "paradise island". However, the lack of knowledge of the character and the island inhabitants themselves are fully presented in kind by the short chapter which lists Maggie's scribbles on a desk pad:

don't know
don't know
don't know
don't no
no yes
don't no

I think, also, Carol, that the lack of editing you refer to, furthermore, simply doesn't apply to the structure of this novel. The sentences are very simple, the chapters depend on those sentences are simple and promise no more than they deliver. If this were a novel that delved into the poetic imagination of maggie's language, then yes, the arc and direction would have been different. But because you DID travel to the island with her, I think that erases the need for shortening an already fairly stature-less portrait.

okay, great day today after much rain (speaking of the beautiful)

Carol Novack said...

Oh dear Tod --- By my statement in reference to drastic editing, i was saying (now i'll stick my toes in my ears even more) that if i had been the editor, i would've cut what i (only i) as the editor deemed repetitious and sluggish. That's my point of view; did not mean to imply that YOU (SD) failed to edit! & yes i was indeed compelled to get beyond what i felt to be a peevish beginning (Tsipi did a great job of making me loathe and yet pity the protagonist) to find out WHAT HAPPENED on the island. The character was so well set up as a loser (yes, please, i know she's a loser and a victim and a whiner and a neurotic sadsack & in many ways a caricatured stereotype -- can we move on? i mean, do i need to be hit over the head again and again with the misery of this woman's mental processes? okay, maybe i do, the way you "read" the book), i was interested in finding out what (my)reader's prophecies would be fulfilled. how much worse would her existence get? what would her manipulative, crass, shallow gorgeous girlfriend idol do to her?

oh yeah, the graphic details of the brutal sex, the little scenes of horrifying degradation ... good question -- did i reader need those details? i'm a woman. i can imagine. i disagree with the guys here. i did not need the details.