September 20, 2012

The Keep

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2007)
GENRE: Literary Realism / Ghost Story (of sorts)

The Keep has been on my to-read list for five years. I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long to read it, but it's left me with a great deal to think about. It's a deceptively simple book, with great and murky depths. And I don't mean "murky" in a pejorative sense. It's simply that there's so very much going on beneath the surface that it seems impossible to sink in deeply enough to touch bottom.

On the surface, it's the story of a man escaping New York to help his cousin renovate an eastern European castle. Danny is an experienced "second" - he's the man who stands beside powerful men and makes things run. Addicted to his cell phone and all other forms of wireless connectivity, he drags a portable satellite dish all the way to the castle, only to lose it to the stygian depths of a ancient pool. It's the first hint of one of Egan's central themes - how much technology is like magic, how very much it makes us like ghosts. About a quarter of the way into Danny's awkward and somewhat fraught reunion with his cousin,  the narrator suddenly introduces himself, exposing the book's second thread, this one concerning the narrator himself, a convict who is penning Danny's story for a prison writing class.

The marriage of these two threads, (Danny's story and the narrator's), should be awkward, but in Egan's hands it works. The narrator is a compelling figure, as compelling, though in a different way, as Danny is. One can't help but feel that the two are viscerally connected. In the climax we learn why and how. The knowledge is both satisfying and inevitable, and strangely touching, given the characters involved -  flawed men living flawed lives, warped and, in Danny's case, occasionally ridiculous. In fact, the book is a symphony of sorts, with various elements playing together in deep harmony - until the denouement.

In the first two sections, the convict narrates Danny's story, inserting asides and moving his own threads forwards as he does. In the final section, his writing teacher takes up the reins, a switch that might have worked were it not so disruptive, so packed with the backstory of a secondary, (though admittedly pivotal), character. I can see why Egan did it - she was able to elucidate certain issues by switching narrators, and it allowed her to tie up loose ends, but overall, it distracted from the final, perfect connection between Danny and the narrator, the thing at the novel's heart. It is The Keep's only real flaw, and one I can forgive, given the structural boldness of the rest. I just can't help but wish for less - less explanation, less backstory, less denouement. With such a well-pitched climax, a brief afterward or epilogue would have functioned to tie the bows. The story stands perfectly without the rest.

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