Jackpot by Tsipi Keller
published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2004
Tsipi Keller wrote an intense trio of books that all “psychological portraits” of women. In her “Meet the Writer” feature, Keller referred to the books as a trilogy; however, the novels are not related. I’ve read two, and they have the same creepy, deeply psychological feel to them. I read Elsa first, which was published in 2014, after Keller sent it to me for review. I was disturbed by it, but intrigued to read more from this author, so she sent me the other two books. Jackpot came in 2004, and Retelling came in 2006. I’ll read Retelling soon; the synopsis is chilling.
In Jackpot, Tsipi Keller is a master of making the reader concerned about the well-being of the main character. Maggie is a 26-year-old woman living in New York City who has always been a middle-class, hand-me-downs kind of person. She meets 25-year-old Robin at a job she got with a temp agency, and the narrator notes Maggie is the one who really pushed for them to remain friends after their short-lived jobs are finished. Maggie feels that over time the two became close friends, but any reader will find this hard to believe on the first page. Robin loves to refer to Maggie as “sweetie” in a way that sounds demeaning. She criticizes Maggie, saying she is “naive and not assertive enough,” “insecure,” “negative,” “too cheerful,” “such a baby,” “so shrewd,” and has a “common variety of social phobia or something worse.” Notice how many of these contradict.
There is so much doubt and hesitancy in Maggie, and she has a number of reasons to feel that way. The story starts with Maggie sitting in Robin’s living room. They are supposed to go out to dinner, but Robin instead brings up going on a trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A description of Robin is very important to know:
Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin. who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others.
Why doesn’t Robin go with her friend Lucy, like she did last time, Maggie wants to know. Robin simply says she wants to go with Maggie. This is five pages in, and already I’m so worried about Maggie. In response to Robin saying she wants to vacation with Maggie, not Lucy, Maggie thinks:
So, it is all in her head. She must accept the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and that her own convoluted thoughts and distrust are a direct result of her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she’d do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.
If Maggie is worried, surely the reader should be too (*warning bells*). And since when are we “lucky” when certain people like us? A character so self-doubting is sure to be abused in some way. Robin sits there oinking on a bag of candy without offering Maggie any. When Maggie decides yes, she’ll go to Paradise Island, Robin practically throws her out of the apartment, exclaiming, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I couldn’t go out [to dinner] if you paid me. You sure you don’t mind? I feel a little guilty.” Maggie says she doesn’t mind, but she cries all the way home. More warning bells.
Robin is immediately juxtaposed with Susan, Maggie’s co-worker. Susan plays a tiny role in the book, mostly to show readers what a good friend actually looks like and expose thoroughly what a horrible human Robin is, in case you doubt it. The author taking this extra step set off more bells, as if she did not want readers to forget nice people aren’t like Robin. But when Maggie is with Susan, two important things happen: she drinks way too much and gets sloppy drunk, and she admits that she was married from ages 20-23 to a man who had sexual issues. Maggie’s ex-husband claimed he didn’t like the way her vagina smelled and thus only wanted her to perform oral sex. Or, Maggie admits, he “insisted she wear a veil or a scarf over her face during sex. He asked her to pretend she was a prostitute or a stranger.” More warning bells! There is a deep problem with sex and shame waiting to bubble up in the novel…you can just tell.
There isn’t a change in Maggie’s personality until she and Robin get on the plane for the Bahamas. Robin is extra grumpy, and Maggie notices that Robin is just a bit fat. Maggie is incredibly thin and lithe, so she feels smug. Maggie immediately scolds herself for being petty. But at the hotel she learns Robin has packed beautiful party dresses, whereas Maggie packed casuals (because Robin told her to). More warning bells! Where is Robin going in party dresses that she hasn’t told Maggie about? Then Maggie sees Robin reading an airport book and mentally belittles her for reading such trash. Immediately, she feels bad again. Maggie believes, “She wants to love Robin always, she wants Robin to love her back. Everything is so much simpler when she can trust Robin.” Which means she doesn’t always trust Robin, right? There’s also this connection between wanting Robin’s love and being shamed by her ex-husband that’s rather brilliant. Tsipi Keller doesn’t have Maggie seek love in another man, but in friendship, which is different from many books. But a page later, Robin says, “Once we get there, you won’t need me, I promise. You’ll be having too much fun.” Does this mean Robin is going to ditch Maggie?
Maggie goes swimming in the ocean, and when she returns to the towel where Robin rests, she finds a man, too. He and Robin laugh at everything Maggie says, even things that aren’t funny. Robin makes sly remarks like “See what I told you?” and Maggie wonders why this guy is so tan when he says he just got in from New Jersey that day. Things feel suspicious! At this point, I’m just waiting for something terrible to happen.
And Robin does start to disappear. Maggie turns around and Robin is gone, like when they go gambling in the hotel casino. Eventually, Maggie starts thinking “fuck Robin” a lot. I feel Maggie’s change in attitude is a bit quick. While I felt suspicious building up to Robin disappearing, Maggie didn’t. She was naive and hopeful, so the quick turn around didn’t quite make sense to me.
Then Maggie slowly tries to emulate Robin. She walks around naked in front of the maid, but immediately regrets it. The author shows the reader that Maggie wants to be something new, someone who isn’t middle class, someone who doesn’t have a vagina “odor.” Maggie’s body, she believes, is better than Robin’s, and Robin’s money can’t really change that. Maggie’s body, when she feels like she’s in control of it, gives her a power she’s never had before.
Then Robin full-on abandons Maggie, sneaking into the room in the middle of the night to grab her things and leave on a yacht with an old man. And everything goes to hell. The author ties together Maggie getting drunk with her co-worker way back in the beginning with her drunken state on vacation, suggesting Maggie gets drunk more often than her sweet, intelligent character would if she weren’t so damaged. Maggie starts hanging out in the hotel casino all night, drinking, not eating, and blacking out. She becomes conscious again when a man starts to have intercourse with her. He’s not wearing a condom…but his repetitive apologies make her want to laugh at him! She then starts crying about losing money at the casino, so he leaves $100 on the bed.
While my first thought is Maggie has been raped and she should go home (Robin’s not even there anymore), Tsipi Keller continues the story in the Bahamas. Various versions of the above scene play out (blacking out and rape), and I started making the connection that while Maggie isn’t asking for money to have sex with strangers, it’s happening nonetheless. How does this continue to happen?
Woven throughout the novel are examples of sexual traumas Maggie’s experienced: as a 13-year-old girl newly in bras, a man grabbed her breast and was disappointed to find padding. Maggie remembers feeling shame that she “failed to please him” in some way. At about seven a strange man molests her after tricking her into his home. Another time, when she played hide-and-seek at a friends house, the friend’s dad pulled her aside and made her touch his genitals. So much sexual abuse in one story, the but the more I read and listen to my friends, the more I realize these examples are common. Because Maggie’s body was out of her control when she was a girl, the novel suggests, she can use her body to gain control over her life as an adult. And if she’s going to get molested and raped anyway, why not profit from it?
To be honest, it took me a while to realize this. I couldn’t understand why Maggie was totally losing it. Two of the abuses she suffered as a child are lumped together in the book. If they were spread out, or perhaps closer to the scenes during which strange men are using her body, like a moment she remembers when she regains consciousness, I may have made the connection faster.
Truly, there is a lot to think about in this book. The ending isn’t the end because women experience sexual trauma at all ages, and how they deal with it varies. I don’t feel as if I’ve given any spoilers because the book doesn’t have a “the end” feel to it. Some events in the last chapters I found difficult to put together, but after mulling over it all for a few days, I realized that I did race through this book, wondering what would happen. I was worried about Maggie and wanted to figure out Robin’s approach to life. Therefore, I recommend this book and highly suggest you read the trio together.
I want to thank Tsipi Keller for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.
You touch on a number of subtle points — and, of course, on the sexual abuse of girls, common, but rarely reported — that most reviewers (male) did not mention in their reviews… so, thank you, Melanie!
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That you so much for writing, Tsipi! Your trio of books is haunting…I worry about your characters a lot, even when I am not reading.
I felt on edge just reading your review! It sounds a little Highsmith-esque.
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I think you would like Tsipi’s novels for sure!
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They do sound right up my alley!
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