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....