Elsa, a novel by Tsipi Keller (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), is part of a “psychological trilogy.” Elsa is the 3rd profile of a woman’s psyche, preceded by Maggie in Jackpot and Sally in Retelling. Why Elsa gets to be the name of her own book, I do not know. What I do know is that Elsa is a book that is sexual and pleasurable, both for character and reader, while remaining terrifying and crazy-like, creating doubt in me and the character.
Elsa is a highly calculating woman: she knows how she influences others in certain outfits, with specific hairstyles, how she looks under various lights and in front of different mirrors. She analyzes how she sounds in her head, decides what she is thinking should be said or kept inside. When she does choose to say something, it’s written exactly how she was thinking it, which reassured me that I was deep in Elsa’s head.
Despite all her calculations that make Elsa seem like a prize, she also appears to have gaps in reasoning. Here is a simple, early gap: Elsa only gives the homeless woman by her luxurious apartment two quarters each morning because she currently can’t afford more (her assessment, not mine), but she also wears the best and rides in cabs (though she feels ashamed that those waiting at the bus stop can see that she takes a cab and has “done well for herself”).
Just when it seems like Elsa is out of touch with reality, she pulls apart the symbolism of her chair at work, a rather astute thought for someone who seeks brands and the way a person carries him/herself to guide her choices:
“As much as she hates going to the office, it’s not so bad once she gets here. There’s a large window right behind her, all she need do is swivel round in her tall executive chair and look out at the river. She enjoys the view, she relishes the leather executive chair. Its narrow back is elegant and feminine, it hugs and supports her, a constant reminder of her good fortune, of her privileged rank and position.
She sighs–the genius of design. And yet, when she compares her chair with the more massive ones of her male associates, she wonders if theirs were in fact fashioned to look like thrones, or whether she is seeing phantoms, suspecting prejudice where none exists. When she compares herself with a male colleague, why does she feel, a priori, intimidated, slighted? Is it purely a matter of size?”
Although Elsa’s inquisitive moment gives her the depth of a real human person, for the most part she is reduced to a thing: a cat, a baby, a slab of clay to be shaped, a product. I felt Tsipi Keller crafted Elsa like a fantasy monster for men, highlighting the inhumane world in which women live. Women are products to be chosen based on design and utility:
“Her gynecologist has suggested that it could be early menopause, and this alarmed her. Her own body is betraying her. How can she market herself as a viable female with a viable womb? She’d better hurry and find herself a man, or she can say goodbye to her dreams about a family, a child. Does she even want a child? How can she know if she’s never had one? She hates it that she is obsessing about a man, she fears that this need, this constant longing, shows on her face and keeps men away, but she can’t help it.” (emphasis mine)
Who or what is it that reduces Elsa to a thing? The book suggests that society has imposed regulations upon her that make Elsa so aware of her every move and thought, that moving and thinking is criminal. Keller gets at what it means to be a woman navigating the world. Elsa knows women are capable of deep thoughts, but reminds readers they must not show it. A thinking woman is a dangerous woman, one who is not ready to smile on command for men:
“On the street, she is even more circumspect, reminding herself she mustn’t move her lips. She spots them all the time, women who, like her, look normal enough, but who are engaged in concentrated inner discussions, possibly more intense and truthful than the ones they have with real people in real time. They talk without a sound, but their lips give them away, as well as the severe and tense expression on their faces. It shouldn’t, but it does surprise her that so many around her are distraught. Occasionally, she may spot a woman who is smiling to herself, which leads her to conclude that the woman is in love.”
Only a woman “tamed” by a man is able to walk down the streets without looking crazy. At first, I thought Elsa implied that happy women don’t have to worry about deep thoughts that make them feel distress. But later, when Elsa meets Gary, I realized that women are meant to be redesigned. There are so many moments of personal doubt for Elsa. She even begins to doubt that horrifying experiences were real, making me think she is an unreliable narrator and maybe the horrible thing didn’t happen (See how that works? Now I don’t trust Elsa). Or, that she is bumbling and clumsy, or that she needs Gary to shape her, mold her, guide her. Tsipi Keller taps into the female psyche and her place in the world when Keller suggests that Elsa knows nothing as an adult woman, unless a man approves. However, Elsa feels reassured: “Whatever happens, she’ll know her place.”
As Gary breaks Elsa down, testing her and loving her, confining her and lavishing affection on her, Elsa comes to see herself as property: “She opens her mouth and examines her teeth. Good teeth, healthy gums. If she were brought to market, she’d fetch a nice prize for her master.”
While the novel ends rather abruptly, Keller has also reached a satisfying stopping point. She’s played out the metaphor of Elsa as “thing” and Gary as “creator-owner.” He alone can make Elsa into a person by reducing her into nothing, “killing” her, and making her stronger, better, human. Elsa gets into head space and made me doubt what was happening while also wanting to destroy and save the woman within its pages.
Check out Tsipi Keller’s Meet the Writer feature from August 2014 here on GTL to learn more about the author!
*Disclosure Note: I had a story published in a Spuyten Duyvil anthology, Wreckage of Reason 2, though this does not influence my review of Tsipi Keller’s novel. I have no personal relationship with the author.