Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Eskridge, Solitaire (2010)

Kelley Eskridge, Solitaire: a novel. Small Beer Press, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN 9781931520102. $16.00.

Reviewed by Paul Wilks

Originally released in 2002, Kelley Eskridge’s debut novel Solitaire is now being republished in paperback by Small Beer Press. Set in the near future where the role of global corporations is reminiscent of the all pervasive organisations portrayed in Japanese Manga comics; Solitaire is tangibly similar in feel to the likes of Scarlett Thomas’s Popco or the satire of Max Barry’s Jennifer Government. Solitaire’s protagonist Jackal Segura is employed by such a company named ‘Ko’. The story tells of Jackal’s fall from favour as a high-flying executive, her explorations of self, identity and relationships in addition to her eventual emancipation from psychological problems. Although slow to start, the novel is an ultimately rewarding, innovative and refreshing read.

Solitaire is principally an exploration of identity and self-purpose but also has a bildungsroman element as Jackal develops a psychological maturity as the story progresses. The novel is essentially split into three parts and it might be suggested that each part has its own unique identity. During the first part the reader is introduced to the protagonist, an executive project manager and designated ‘Hope’ by Ko society at her birth. As ‘Hope’, Jackal represents a future ambassador for her organisation on the global stage. The reader is also introduced to her petulant and competitive Mother, in addition to her friends or ‘web’, most notably her partner Snow. Although I think the reader is expected to sympathise with Jackal in this section, there are moments when she comes across as being spoilt and constantly in the state of feeling sorry for herself. Jackal certainly feels the pressure surrounding her as ‘Hope’ and she has to modify her already shaky self-perception when she discovers that her status is fraudulent. However, her continuing issues with identity and self esteem, which in many ways appear to be perpetuated by Snow’s coddling, seem unnecessary and I found myself wishing Jackal would discover some inner gumption of her own.

For dystopia readers this section of the book also lacks in societal detail. One aspect I enjoy about speculative fiction is understanding a little about the society the protagonists exist in. Unfortunately there is scant exploration of this in Solitaire. However, despite the griping Jackal—with whom it is difficult to find sympathy—and a seeming lack of direction in this first part of the book, the redeeming features are twofold. Snow is an incredibly intriguing character, and not only because she is an indefatigable well of psychological support for Jackal. Snow’s character and background is neglected somewhat through the novel, but even early in Solitaire she garners real traction in the reader’s interest and you are left keen to know more about her biography. Secondly, the equality within the society is refreshing. It appears that in Ko society men and women share prominent roles and the same-sex relationship of Jackal and Snow is normative and not exploited for narrative effect. The questions concerning sexual equality and sexuality are not discussed and this invisibility is genuinely innovative and refreshing.

Momentum in both the story and Jackal’s character launch in parts two and three. Imprisoned in a virtual confinement, Jackal must spend eight years alone—albeit merely ten months in real-world incarceration. During this period the narration permits Jackal to explore her psyche and confront her identity and esteem issues. While these issues seemed negligible in the first part of the novel, this exploration gives Jackal much needed grit and resolve. Subsequently her character develops important flavour for the reader and genuine interest and sympathy for her begins here. Jackal’s imprisonment eventually leads to new discoveries about her sense of self in addition to the work of her (now former) employer Ko. This further thickens the plot, and by the end of the second part, the novel hits a plateau of intrigue that makes it difficult to put down.

Part three sees Jackal released from her virtual prison and her attempts to rebuild her life. The determination she developed during confinement is put to good use here and her journey towards making new friends and resolving her identity issues is realised in this part. An interesting note on this part of the book is the author’s use of food in the narration. Jackal, and those around her seem to be eating constantly. As a narrative tool this draws the reader in with the virtual tastes and smells of the characters environment. This helps the reader immerse themselves into the story further and continue to sympathise with Jackal.

The character of Snow also appears in part three and has reconciliation with Jackal. While the passages that explore the relationship between Jackal and Snow are tender and emotive, I thought more could have been explored here—it just didn’t seem enough. Again Snow is the conduit of empathy and sympathy; both in the narrative in the way she interacts with Jackal, but also in the way the character of Snow affects the reader. There would appear to be a varied amount of unwritten history regarding Snow and this neglect, at times, left me feeling a little in the dark and wanting to know more. While Snow’s character is primary to this feeling, other characters also have a hidden narrative that could have been explored further.

None of this however should detract from what is a fascinating and intriguing novel. While there remain a few loose ends, and the biographies of some characters are left unsatisfied, the novel bubbles with action and smart dialogue. Jackal’s internal conflict finds gravitas after an initially weak start and her self-discovery and personal resolutions make interesting analysis. Solitaire is not what you might expect from a typical speculative fiction novel—there is little consideration of the social structure in which Jackal belongs. However, there are strong, well explored themes here, most notably identity, notions of self and love. The three-part construction of the novel is, in many ways, innovative and, although it might be said these sections do not blend as well as they could, there is a freshness about this approach. There is rumour that this novel is to be made into a film and treatment of Jackal’s psychological journey will be interesting to observe in this medium. The story is not perfect but any novel that becomes un-put-down-able, even momentarily, and creates genuinely interesting and beguiling characters as Solitaire does, becomes an essential read, if perhaps not an essential library addition.

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