Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

26 Apr

Solitaire cover

Kelley Eskridge
Small Beer Press, 2011
isbn 9781931520102
Review by Nicola Clarke

There was no risk in letting herself believe that these trees belonged  to her; the rough trunks, the startling soft meat of a broken branch,  the knobbled twigs rising in rows like choirs. The ground belonged to  her, the human-made rises and falls of root and rock, carefully random,  beautiful. The flowers were hers, stuporous in their mulch: the light  and the stippled shadow, the stones and the rich rot underneath them,  were all part of this place that felt like part of her. For the few  minutes of passing through it, she was drawn into it like a breath.

Back in October (2010), there was a very long discussion thread over at Torque Control – sparked by an interview with Tricia Sullivan – about why so little of the science fiction published in the UK these days is written by women. One of the ideas that came out of this fascinating conversation was that we should celebrate women’s genre writing, both in the UK and elsewhere, by putting together a list of the best sf by women from the past ten years. (Voting is open to everyone, and runs until the end of December 5th; details of how to vote are here: go on!)

I’m still mulling over my own list of nominations, but one of them is certainly going to be Solitaire (2002, returning to print next year with Small Beer Press), by Kelley Eskridge. It’s a coming of age story done as psychological thriller: a compelling portrait of a young woman battling both the system and her self after her world collapses, to emerge older, wiser and sadder from an extremely long dark night of the soul. The first chapter is available online here.

Solitaire is essentially a novel about the individual within and against the collective. Its central character, twenty-two year-old Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura, is a “Hope”. She is one of thousands of people around the globe who shared the moment of their birth with that of a new world order: a single, unified planetary government. This accident of birth both affords Hopes huge social and economic privilege, and strips them of some measure of their individuality. As “the  face of unity“, representives of “a global  community  with shared dreams and common goals“, their propagandistic value to the new government – and to their home nations – is enormous, and huge reserves of time and money are ploughed into grooming them for roles in the Earth Congress and its associated administration when they reach adulthood.

The privilege comes with a price, of course. One of these, and the most immediately obvious in the narrative, is the envy of others; early on, we see that some of  Jackal’s peers feel overshadowed by the glamour of her Hope status, and are resentful of the educational and social opportunities she is given at their expense. In particular, Jackal’s relationship with her mother, Donatella, has become increasingly difficult; while Donatella is ambitious and capable in her own right, she has invested so much of her intellectual and emotional energy into Jackal’s future success that she seems to have lost all sight of Jackal as a (young) human being, and takes any mistake on Jackal’s part as an unforgiveable failure.

Jackal, to a considerable degree, has come to share and internalise this sense of herself. As Snow, Jackal’s girlfriend (who, rather awesomely and quite incidentally, has had body-mod surgery to turn one of her fingers into a Swiss Army knife), observes,

Sometimes I wonder how Jackal survived this woman’s mothering. And I  understand why Jackal is so blindly duty-bound and why she is afraid to  ask people for help. Why she guards her core so fiercely. It’s because  she’s an orphan whose parents are still alive.

Things only get worse when Donatella is passed over for a significant promotion – overseeing the development and implementation of new brain-chemistry technology – in favour of her precocious daughter. All this is exacerbated by the environment in which Jackal grows up; unlike her fellow Hopes, she is the living symbol not of a country but of a corporation:

That  was who she  was: the  Hope of Ko.  The Hope of the only commercial   entity on the  planet with  its own home territory and almost-realized   independence  from its host  nation, only a few negotiations away from   becoming the  first  corporate-state in the new world order; the only   commercial  concern  powerful enough to leverage its impact on world   economy into  inclusion  in the Hope program.

Which brings us to the second, much larger cost of being a Hope: it means, unavoidably, a life lived in public, the individual will subsumed to the needs and desire of the collective or corporate body. What price Jackal’s volition and self-determination, after all, when the fortunes of everyone connected with Ko are dependent upon her success? In everything she does, she must excel; her role in life, once she becomes an adult, will be to provide the company with a return on its investment, year after year. Here, for example, is the rebuke she receives from a tutor/line manager after a rare loss of temper on her part:

“I will not have you perceived  as    unable to manage conflict. I will not have you perceived as unable  to   be  objective. You are the most important investment that this  company   will  make in a generation. You will do everything in your  power to   justify  that investment. You are the Hope of Ko, and I am  making you   fit to  serve.”

Unsurprisingly, given her circumstances and upbringing, the majority of the time Jackal is  preternaturally self-aware and self-controlled, as Eskridge signals in  the novel’s opening paragraph:

So  here she was, framed in the open double doors like a photograph: Jackal  Segura on the worst day of her life, preparing to join the  party.  The  room splayed wide before her, swollen with voices, music,  human heat,  and she thought perhaps this was a bad idea after all.  But  she was  conscious of the picture she made, backlit in gold by the autumn   afternoon sun, standing square, taking up space.  A good entrance,   casually dramatic.  People were already noticing, smiling; there’s our Jackal being herself.  There’s our Hope.

She is subject to constant scrutiny, not only from her friends,  family and colleagues, but also – as the imagery of photographs here  suggests – from the media; she is obliged to make regular time for the  latter in her schedule (the appetite for details of the Hope’s life is  considerably, it seems). Her thoughts and feelings, much less her public  actions, can never be entirely her own.

As the novel begins, Jackal’s hard-won self-control is fracturing. “[T]he worst day of her life“,   in the words of the opening line quoted above, is when she discovers   that she is not, technically, a Hope: her birth was late, by a matter of   hours, but Donatella and unknown other associates falsified the  records  of the delivery to get her – and Ko – a piece of the  world-government  pie. This news, thrown at her in bitter anger by her mother,  cuts to the heart  of everything Jackal understands herself to be:  public property, with  the weight of the world on her young shoulders  and a glittering,  influential career ahead of her.

The way that Jackal reacts links into the novel’s larger themes of self-determination and responsibility. Initially, she greets her devastation by seeking to remove herself from it; she gets drunk and has bad-idea sex with a male friend, Tiger. In a   foreshadowing of  later developments  in the story, Jackal experiences   the encounter – drawn with expressive economy by Eskridge – as a  dislocation of body and mind: “The  sex was a  series of strobe moments, mouth here, fingers   there, and   she flowed  through them click click click as if working a   string of   worry beads to  count her sorrows away“, and when it ends she returns to awareness by “step[ping] off the shelf in her head where she’d been storing herself”.

What makes all this more interesting is that Jackal is not, as might be expected, either mutinous or sullen about her responsibilities. Her choice, years before, of the nickname Jackal represents one of her very few acts of  rebellion against her mother (Donatella tried to get her to go for  something more noble like Eagle). Even after learning she is not a Hope, her response – bar the  immediate loss of self-control – is to redouble her efforts in service to Ko.  It is partly a distraction, a way to fight her panic. But it is also a desire to do well, regardless. She thrives on the pressure, and adores both her training and her new job in charge of the brain manipulation project:

Even with too little sleep and apple lumps in her  stomach, she hurried toward it. The work was like nitrogen in her blood,  a fizzing feeling when she did well. Here she felt confident, real.  Here she felt safe. When she doubted herself and her ability to play the  role that she was being customized for, she pushed herself harder,  staked out another skill and skinned itself and sucked it from the guts  down to the marrow. It nourished her spirit in the same way that Snow  sustained her heart.

Yet Ko is all-consuming and unforgiving, and Jackal – who has lived on the home island, near Hong Kong, all her sheltered life – has only a vague sense of what life is like outside it. When one of Jackal’s classmates and colleagues turns down a job on the project Jackal is to lead, because of an unspecified moral objection to the research (as Jackal’s father puts it, he “agonized over his damn  principles, whether he could work on a project that he didn’t approve  of“), he and his family are forced to leave both the company and its island, and Jackal imagines him

swallowed up by one of the  innumerable frightening things that awaited someone forcibly  disconnected from the world’s most powerful corporation.

Solitude among the trees of Ko – as expressed in the passage quoted at the very top of the post – is an important release for Jackal, and her attachment to the island’s landscape is deeply felt. But she enjoys it precisely because it represents only a temporary escape: a pause from the demands of her life, not a severance of it. Corporate (and social) life on Ko gives Jackal’s life structure and meaning, and the idea of its loss fills her with horror because she has never had to live her life for its own sake, or have only herself for company.

Then, abruptly, she is caught up in a horrific incident in Hong Kong, and left to twist in the wind – taking responsibility for something she didn’t do – by her corporate masters in Ko. Here, a hundred pages in, the story abruptly shifts gear. Jackal is offered the chance to reduce her sentence by taking part in a pilot scheme for a new form of criminal rehabilitation: an experimental chemical process that creates a virtual environment in the subject’s mind, in which the subjective sense of time can be controlled externally; ten months of real time in the programme, during which she will be fed intravenously, will be experienced by her as eight years. In the simulation, she will see no-one: two thousand, nine hundred and twenty days of solitary confinement inside her own head. Sick at heart, but with little choice, she accepts.

What follows – Jackal trapped in a virtual room in her mind, tearing herself apart and slowly, painfully, putting herself back together – is shown to us in sequential, random snippets. Here, at last, is the woman alone with her self. There is a bed, a cupboard, and an imaginary wall-screen that counts off the days; this is all, and Eskridge evokes the loneliness and the boredom and the creeping danger of insanity with quiet skill. There is no grandstanding, little shrieking or violence on Jackal’s part: just the understated, skin-crawlingly endless build up of moments, the discovery that she increasingly finds “comfort in patterns, in repeatable actions, in controlled movements“, the half-acknowledged fear that this might be a glimmer of madness.

As Ko’s Hope, she could pretend to herself that she had control over her life, could in some ways enjoy the walls within which she lived. In the simulated prison cell, though, she has no illusion left: she is entirely and unignorably at the mercy of her captors. The relentless self-scrutiny to which she subjects herself – for want of anything else to do – proves more scouring than anything the outside world ever inflicted on her; passing day 900, she reflects:

I am in prison. She reached out and touched the wall nearest her. This is my cell. She touched her fingers to her breastbone. This is my cell. She thumped herself once, hard. This is my cell. Then she stood, looking around her, breathing, turning, looking, breathing, touching herself, for a long time.

After the tightly-constructed claustrophobia of Jackal’s time in the prison – and it really is very well done – the story’s continuation after her release could have been a disappointment. But the liberation that Jackal gradually comes to feel and appreciate is matched by an opening out of the narrative. Exiled from Ko, adrift in a world she never really understood even before her imprisonment, she finds a “strange, dislocated freedom” in living only for eating, sleeping, and “the clean satisfaction of getting things done“. Outcast in a marginal neighbourhood of a strange city, Jackal has the chance to meet people on her own terms, without her status as a Hope weighing her down and colouring the way others interact with her. Above all, she finds herself drawn to a back-street bar named Solitaire, “a place where people can come and be themselves, even if their self is really weird“, and where fellow former inmates of the virtual reality prison congregate – each with the aim of being alone in a like-minded crowd.

I’ve always been drawn to characters who survive and thrive when thrown back on their own resources, and Jackal’s journey from everyone’s pawn to self-reliant individual is a very enjoyable and satisfying one indeed.

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