Jennifer Egan became known for taking gutsy chances with her last book, Look at Me (2001), about a supermodel who ruins her face in a car accident. In The Keep, Egan also juggles characters and plotlines, but the initial effect seems more annoying than gratifying. The intrusive narrator’s voice is just a little too clever, while the “writing” he supposedly does is hardly first class, despite an occasional brilliant image.
At the end of the novel, when the focus shifts from the alternating personas of third-person Danny, the character, and first-person Ray, the narrator, to the first>person narrator of Holly, the writing teacher, one wants to forgive Egan for any previous annoyance. The discovery of which of The Keep’s characters was Ray, though not stunning, leads to a retroactive appraisal of the work as a whole.
Not many of the characters are likable. Danny is twitchy and absorbed with placing himself in relation to the world around him, the hipster with the velvet coat and special boots who is haunted by the past. As he waits in the darkness at the locked castle gate for someone to let him in, he relives with apprehension the prank he and an older cousin played on the adolescent Howie. Danny senses that somehow that act changed him from the golden boy who should have been a success in the world to the hustler he had become. Now that readers know this awful secret that the grown-up relatives never knew, they share Danny’s apprehension about why Howie has invited him.
When Howie finally enters the stage, he is nothing like Danny’s memories of his young cousin. Instead of a fat, fish-belly white, nerdy kid, Howie is fit, tanned, and oozing power. Danny has monitored Howie’s rising fortunes through the family grapevine, but this vision is so radically different from the truth that he is unnerved. Howie displays no trace of emotional reserve or threat toward Danny. He has purchased this castle for the express purpose of turning it into a New Age hotel where people leave their cell phones and laptops at the door and seek to experience their own imagination. Howie is a bit of a cipher as well. Beyond his enthusiasm about this project, he does not share what is inside him.
Throughout this first chapter, as readers meet Danny and learn where he is and why he has come (at least as far as he knows himself), the narrator of the story intrudes more and more. The intrusion begins as a casual complaint about how hard the mechanics are of switching the character Danny from memory to memory and progresses to outrightly addressing the reader. The narrator, who identifies himself as Ray, a convict working on an assignment for a writing class, actually anticipates the thoughts an annoyed reader might have.
The chapter ends with a transition that places Ray in his prison classroom. In the following chapter, Egan returns to the castle and to the characters that Ray is supposedly creating. The story remains focused on the castle for several chapters before returning to the prison classroom. Another setup by the author occurs when one of Ray’s classmates demands to know which character represents Ray. Now the reader is left to wonder whether the story is based on true events and, if so, whether Ray took part in them.
The characters Egan creates for the prison sequences are more fully developed and realistic than the characters in the castle story. This seems to be an attempt on the author’s part to differentiate the two stories by the writing skills of the supposed creator. Egan has achieved this perhaps too well; the castle story often becomes mired in cliché and awkward constructions. There are even many extraneous scenes.
The novel contains little in the way of humor. One of the few darkly hilarious scenes involves Danny’s meeting with the Baroness von Ausblinker. From his first distant view of the baroness through a window of the ancient keep, Danny has romanticized her. The...
(The entire section is 1630 words.)