The Keep, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for The Keep by Jennifer EganI read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale. ┬áThe narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:

“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”

Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.

The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.