The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This 2006 work is a strange novel. We read mainly about Danny and Howie, two cousins who have a back story in which Howie has a reason to resent Danny. Now, Howie is wealthy and invites Danny to join him at a castle in Central Europe that he is restoring and from which he has deliberately removed all forms of modern communication. Danny has offended some gangster types in New York and needs to escape, so he is grateful for the invitation. But when he arrives at the hotel he is uncomfortable at losing communication with the outside world. He is also not sure whether he should trust Howie. Has his cousin invited him abroad because he finally is out for revenge?

But just as we get into the intriguing and realistic story about their relationship and about the castle and its keep, their story is interrupted, and more than once, by a first person narrative of Ray, a convict confined in a maximum security prison for violent offenders. Who is taking a course in creative writing under a teacher named Holly. And it is difficult to see the connection between these two stories.

But of course they do come together at the end. Except, in a strange way. They come together as mutual stories of confinement and escape, of victimization and imagination. Moreover, only one of the stories is real, even though both have been presented in vivid detail, especially that of the partly restored castle, which is built over hidden tunnels, and otherwise is dark, is falling apart, and houses a mysterious and elderly, albeit seductive, baroness.

One sees such disjunction as characteristic of Egan novels. Which often jump back and forth in terms of place and time and culture. They keep the reader working, keep him off balance, presumably to get him more involved in her work. But there is also a playfulness here, almost a taunting, as if she wants to keep one step ahead of the reader. To say, this is my world, my story. Not yours. Not what you may be accustomed to.

This is illustrated most openly by the voice of Ray that keeps popping up out of nowhere to address the reader. It may be about how a certain transition is achieved. Or it will reveal a character in one story becoming a character in another story. Which certainly pulls the reader up short, pulls him out of the world he is reading about and prompts him to ask: what is going on here? What is this novel trying to say?

The realism of the castle and the keep provide the basic solidity to this novel. And at the same time, we feel ourselves in a world of the unworldly, of the preternatural if not the supernatural. When Danny meets the resident baroness, the novel captures the medieval magic of the past. When Danny explores the tunnels, we feel the desperation of an adventure story. And when the hotel’s entire staff is trapped in the tunnels, we feel immersed in a world of horror and fantasy.

Egan uses most of her creative energy writing about the castle and the keep—which explains the title. And Danny’s adventures there are what most interested me. But those adventures end up being more metaphors for the meaning of this novel than the actual meaning. And the meaning itself is elusive. Is it in Danny’s story or in Ray’s story? For Danny, it involves the abandonment he feels at having lost contact with the outside world and its sources of information. And his adventures at the castle, with its mysterious swimming pool, with its hidden and closed-off tunnels, require a survival therapy. Which he needs, being entirely dependent upon himself, and feeling powerless in an unfriendly world.

But is the castle’s world real? Beginning with the night he spends with the baroness. What, in fact, is reality? And what must he do to escape this form of reality? Especially when Danny suspects that Howie’s banning of all tools of communication serves to control him, even to prevent him from leaving. The novel suggests one answer. That his imagination offers Danny an escape from his sense of detachment and powerlessness. Indeed, his gothic adventures contrast the world of fantasy and magic with the familiar world of technology, and suggests this as the means to open the door for his escape.

Egan herself, offers an explanation during an interview published by The Writer: “I was interested in the ways technology has altered, or questioned, our sense of what is ‘real.’ Though I hadn’t planned it consciously, the gothic environment was the perfect place in which to explore that question.”

Inevitably, this search for what is real leads inward, and to self-reflection in the presentation of this novel. Which places Egan in the literary world of metafiction. Usually, I am intrigued by such awareness than an author brings to his or her work. But, here, the particular world of the castle is so real that the self-reflection kept coming between me and the world I was immersed in. Indeed, the author seemed to be jumping out in front of her characters, distracting me from them.

Madison Smart Bell’s positive review in The New York Times cites the novel’s ”Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections, and trompe l’oeil effects” along with its “unusually vivid and convincing realism.” And this certainly captures my perspective. Except, I place more value here on the realism and less on the effects. And do wonder about the similar literary awareness that the author reportedly brings to her later novel about the Goon Squad. Will the emphasis there be on the characters and their story, or on the meaning of the story?

The Kirkus Review reaches a conclusion similar to the Times. “The beautiful prose doesn’t entirely disguise how wildly improbable the novel’s events are, but the characters’ emotions are so real, the author’s insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away.” And, indeed, I was swept away, but by Danny’s story rather than Ray’s, and by the adventure rather than by the search for meaning.

I am still interested in Egan’s other work. Next on my shelves is Good Squad. But I do hope that from now on subsequent novels will be closer to the reality of the recent Manhattan Beach than to the fantasy inherent in this novel. (May, 2019)
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