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)
Continue reading “The Keep, by Jennifer Egan”

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

This is a marvelous novel from 2017. It truly deserves the recognition it has received. From the moment that 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan joins her father Eddie on a winter visit to the Manhattan Beach house of Dexter Styles, a mysterious impresario in a world of gangsters, one is entranced by her early maturity and by their easy father-daughter relationship. And, indeed, we will shortly realize that this novel is about these three characters and their intertwined lives. Eddie needs money for the family. Anna will need to be the family breadwinner. And Styles yearns for social respect from the family he marries into. How and whether they will achieve these various goals drives both the novel’s story and their fates.

Initially, we are introduced to the home life of Anna, father Eddie, mother Agnes, and her crippled sister Lydia. Their life centers around finding support systems for Lydia, whose presence enriches this novel early on. But their life becomes difficult when Eddie loses his money in the Depression and can find work only as a bagman transporting bribes for a corrupt union boss. Desperate, he convinces Styles he can become his “eyes and ears” inside Styles’s nefarious businesses. But it is a mysterious life that he keeps secret from his family. His new income, however, finally enables the family to live a comfortable life and to care for Lydia, even though the family never learns what he does to earn that income.

And then, one day, their father never comes home. He disappears.

This historical novel then jumps ahead nearly a decade and we encounter life on our nation’s home front in the early years of World War II. The Kerrigans live in Brooklyn and we roam its nearby bars and rooming houses. Without a father, Anna knows the family’s survival depends on her. And so she finds a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, finds a job once held by men. But she is bored working on an assembly line with older, married women, women with whom she has nothing in common. One day, however, she sees divers working nearby, and, entranced, decides that is what she wants to do. Even if she is a woman. She will help repair the ships that her country needs to fight its war.

The author truly creates that world of divers, the training, the problems of wearing a 200 pound suit, and the initial plunge under water— with Anna all the time fighting to be recognized as an equal in a world of men. This is a main section of this novel, and in her Acknowledgements, one realizes the many dozens of experts the author consulted to create both the Brooklyn of that era and the world of diving that comes across so naturally, especially as Anna must justify her presence to Lieutenant Axel, her trainer. We also realize why Anna’s training regimen is so real, when we learn that author Egan actually put on a 200-pound diving suit as part of her research.

But the world of diving is only the base on which this novel is built, and on which Anna’s character is built. For this is also a world of gangsters, sailors, bankers, and girl friends, all of whom enrich the world that Anna must deal with. And yet, more deeply, this is the intertwined stories of Anna and the two men. Which comes to a head when Anna, intent to find out from Mr. Styles what happened to her father, approaches him, fascinates him, and spends a torrid night with him. Except, when he learns her true reason for seeking him out, he spurns her and will have nothing to do with her.

The author often switches her viewpoint in mid-page among these three characters. And some of these switches are really impressive in literary terms. Perhaps the most brilliant is from Dexter to Eddie when both are at sea, but with each facing a different fate in a different time frame and on a different ocean.

Otherwise, we spend considerable time with Dexter and his activities in the underworld as he yearns for respect, as well as with Anna’s father when Eddie is marooned in an extensive, truly Conradian, scene at sea. In this way, author Egan gets us to identify with and have sympathy for both characters. Yes, even with this gangster, when he becomes the romantic, mysterious character that Anna sees, and when we also learn he has dreams of going legitimate. Plus, the author never confronts us with his evil deeds.

And, eventually, after we learn the presumed fates of Dexter and Eddie, we return to the story of Anna. She learns she is pregnant. From that torrid night. And does not know what to do. Have the baby or not? Keep the baby or not? It is an old-fashioned literary development, but it works. The rest of the novel presents her decision, and resolves the many relationships she has developed within her family and with her fellow workers.

This novel is further enriched by the working world the author creates, whether it is at the shipyard, in the businesslike world of the gangster dens, or as a crewman at sea. The prejudice against the women of that era is particularly real, as Anna invades a world that the male divers claim as their own. Lieutenant Axel, as her lead trainer, is particularly prejudiced, but when she proves herself worthy, he begins praising her work to shame the other men he is working with. It is a prejudice against women that will become even more blatant when Anna discovers she is about to bear an illegitimate child.

This has been called an old-fashioned novel, especially compared to Goon Squad, but that is precisely why I enjoyed it. It captures a family. It captures an historical time and the prejudices that women of that era faced. It captures the power of the sea, both the power that engulfs one below the surface and its seemingly endless power when one is nearly alone on its vast expanse. And it introduces three struggling people, separates them, then brings them back together and unites their fates—people, moreover, we can identify with, since all are striving for something positive in their lives.

Egan has said she has considered writing a sequel, which would take Anna into the 1960s, an era of revolution and protest that Egan wishes she herself had experienced. But one wonders if such a work could equal the intensity of this work. Particularly with Anna here struggling alone, depending only upon herself. (January, 2019)