Built to Spill


The narrator of Tsipi Keller’s new novel imagines herself to be a pure, uncorrupted soul, which may be her biggest problem. A graduate student of independent means, Sally is something of an empty vessel, filling herself up with vicarious experience. Like a fiction writer who doesn’t write, or a therapist without patients, she’s a close observer of strangers, especially the chess players who frequent a nearby park. She’s also a full-time friend without a friend, or at least not a living one: The life and unsolved murder of the beautiful Elsbeth occupies most of her mind. As in Keller’s previous book, Jackpot (both novels are part of a planned trilogy), Retelling foregrounds a meek, solitary woman (the late Elsbeth once mocked Sally as “the little mouse, nibbling on books in the dark”) who’s bereft when her imperious pal disappears, leaving the beta-girl without a light source to illuminate her own half-formed personality. Aside from encounters with neighbors and a bitchy acquaintance who thinks that Elsbeth ruined Sally’s life, her primary regular contact with another person comes in the form of police interrogations. She’s indignant that the cops would insinuate so much about her relationship with Elsbeth and the night of her mysterious death, when she is “so obviously clean and blameless.”

Capturing the waft and drift of her un-heroine’s unstructured days, Keller has a keen eye for the territorial pissings and unspoken resentments of immature female friendships. Retelling is foremost a discomfiting novel of loneliness—perhaps we can all recognize some past or present version of ourselves in Sally, alone in the dark trying to piece together the shards of ugly memories. The remembrance promised by the title is a story told to no one.