Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Claustrophobia in Paradise: Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

COMPELLING
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds...
—e e cummings


Maggie, the naive New Yorker who visits Paradise in Tsipi Keller's Jackpot, is an unusually self-absorbed young woman. The antithesis (at the beginning) of Cumming's Cambridge ladies, Maggie seems uncomfortable in mind and bare of soul. Her intently focused story is told almost exclusively in terms of her inner dialogue, making this a claustrophobic trip, indeed.

When we first meet Maggie in New York, she is preparing to go out to dinner with her friend, Robin. Instead, Robin proposes that the two women go on a winter vacation to the Bahamas, to a resort called Paradise. Maggie consents, and Robin then sends her off without the promised dinner. This, with other events revealed in Maggie's reminiscences, make it clear that Robin is no true friend—but Maggie seems compelled to seek Robin's approval.

It also becomes obvious that Maggie admires Robin, even while disapproving of her. She mentally chides her friend for being plump, skipping breakfast, wearing nail polish—and for casually taking up with men at the resort, especially the older man, Ben. We are set up to be wary of Robin on Maggie's behalf, to worry that the naive girl will be led astray by her amoral travel partner.

In fact, Maggie has tied her behavior to Robin's as an anchor, striving to be more in control than her friend. So when Robin takes off on Ben's yacht (without a word to Maggie), our girl comes unmoored. Without Robin to compare herself to, Maggie descends into a maelstrom of drunken gambling and prostitution.

Despite its claustrophic inner focus, this story is fascinating; Keller deftly provides clues to the source of Maggie's desire for approval, her fatal inability to govern her own life, and her final abandonment of her job, her States-side persona, her body, and her judgement, to the seductive allure of Paradise.

At less than 200 pages, Jackpot would not seem to be a demanding read—but I warn you, Keller's Maggie has power to take you along with her. That slender volume is, like Maggie's planned seven-day vacation, deceptive in the duration of its effect. The furniture of Maggie's soul, once her remodel is complete, is uncomfortable and unbeautiful—but inviting nonetheless.
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