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”

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Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.

Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.

This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.

And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?

But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.

My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.

In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.

One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.

There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.

It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.

I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)