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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Tsipi Keller's novel Retelling (which as I mentioned yesterday is available from and which I recommend without hesitation or reservation) is a highly pleasurable read. Tsipi uses a first-person narrator who drifts effortlessly from place to place in this Bernhard-style non-paragraphed work about a graduate student named Sally who's best friend Elsbeth Williams is murdered and whom the police regard as a suspect, subjecting her to repeated interrogations. Sally is a solitary type who is keenly observant her East Village neighborhood, noticing everything that goes on around her, the people, the goings-on in the park she frequents, her neighbors, and one feels the intensity of her awareness is a direct result of her living alone, with no close friends after the death of thirty-year-old Elsbeth, allowing one the paradoxical treat of being able to share the moment to moment awareness of someone who generally doesn't allow people into her life--the reader becomes the friend of the largely friendless Sally, having full access to her inner life, which generates a pleasant feeling of comradeship, until one realizes it's entirely a one-way relationship from which Sally derives no benefit. And its an inner life that threatens to float off into the blue, or unravel, at any time, Sally admitting "I often caught myself wondering if I even knew who I was." In commenting on an arms-length friend she reveals how unfixed, how unanchored her identity is: "Lydia, I concluded, was evil and passive-aggressive, and yet, at the same time, I couldn't help the sneaking suspicion that it was I who was evil and passive-aggressive." Will Sally's grip on herself improve over the course of the novel? Unlikely, based on her view of the nature of the self: "This realization [that in her dreams she acted as she had in her youth] led me to theorize that we never really truly change, that the core personality we develop in our teens remains with us forever and emerges in the night when we dream." (Which parallels an opinion expressed by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan, who wrote The Departed, on the subject of characters changing over the course of a work, which I am going to attempt to post here.) Her self-doubt and self-deprecation notwithstanding, Sally shows herself to be one tough cookie in dealing with the repeated interrogations of the police. But it's the intimate companionship with a stranger that is the work's chief attraction--a forbidden, one-way, impossible, enchanting relationship--along with the dream-like transitions from location to location throughout the story, and the careful observation of the day-to-day details which make up our lives.

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