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The Keep


The Keep

Since childhood I have had a thing for castles: Combining
fortress-like safety (moats, drawbridges, tiny slitted windows)
with romantic fantasy (slender towers, crenellated walls, bright
pennants), they always seemed to me the ideal place to live, albeit
a bit damp and cold. (Makes sense for someone who still thinks she
was a princess in a past life.)

An enormous, decrepit heap somewhere in Eastern Europe is both the
physical setting for Jennifer Egan's THE KEEP and the book's
metaphorical heart. With its underground passageways, silted-up
pool and ancient torture chambers, the castle is an emblem of the
shadowy realms in which past and present mingle, and New World
meets Old. Yet this is no fairy tale or creaky neo-gothic, nor is
it the literary equivalent of one of those European films in which
everything is weighted with symbolism and moves at a glacial pace.
THE KEEP is that rare thing, a serious novel with the energy and
page-turning allure of a beach book.

This is apparent from the start, when a rhythmic, kvetchy narrative
voice, almost worthy of a standup routine (rather than the grave
and cadenced "Once upon a time"), bursts upon us: Danny --- a
would-be New York hipster and all-around screw-up in a velvet coat,
lucky boots and brown lipstick --- arrives at the castle at the
behest of its new owner, his cousin Howie, when a
"misunderstanding" in the restaurant where he works has left him
homeless, jobless and penniless. Howie's idea for the ancient pile,
we learn, is to create a sort of anti-Disneyland ("Let people be
tourists of their own imaginations") in which guests leave their
stress (and their electronics) behind and recover their "ability to
make things up." Danny, in contrast, is so lost without his cell
phone connection and Internet access (Egan plays slyly with this
contemporary addiction) that he has lugged a satellite dish all the
way from New York.

There is History-with-a-capital-H here, in the shape of an old
baroness, the last descendant of the family that owned the castle,
who hates the American invaders and refuses to leave the keep ---
the stronghold, "the place where everyone holed up if the castle
got invaded." And there is small-h history as well, for when they
were boys, Danny and another cousin abandoned Howie, then a fat,
nerdy kid, alone in a cave. He survived, but Danny has lifelong
guilt and paranoia, while Howie, now an insanely wealthy retired
bond trader, has a permanent case of the heebie-jeebies about
closed underground spaces.

Speaking of closed spaces, THE KEEP has another twist: Once we're
launched on Danny's tale, Egan reveals that it is actually an
ongoing story (factual or not, we don't know) submitted by Ray, a
prison inmate, for his behind-bars creative writing class. Egan has
a little satirical fun with the cliches of writing workshops (the
vulnerability, the posturing, the petty politics and disputes), but
she is equally good at the suffocating minutiae of life in jail,
like the pervasiveness of dated slang: "[T]his place is a word pit
--- words get stuck in here, caught from when the clock stopped on
our old lives." Usually I'm impatient with the alternating-narrator
gimmick because one point of view is typically a lot more
interesting than the other.

In THE KEEP, however, Egan manages to keep both balls in the air.
We are quickly absorbed by the tender, gingerly attraction that
develops between cynical Ray and his well-defended writing teacher,
Holly, and the way she encourages him to free himself through his
imagination (do I sense a theme?); a door in our heads, she calls
it. Holly, in fact, dominates the end of the book with a female
coda to this story of male fear and betrayal --- her trajectory is
no less tragic or thwarted than Danny and Howie's, but the tone is
different: softer, more rueful.

Summarized for a review, THE KEEP seems almost too neat: The
claustrophobic, powerful cave, keep, and prison cell are clearly
related (Danny "goes underground" with Howie; Ray lives in a
six-feet-by-ten space), as are the multiple ways Egan shows us
"history pushing up from underneath," the past invading the present
and the unconscious mind subverting the conscious part. But it
doesn't seem obvious while you're reading it. Egan maintains her
balance between a gripping, immediate emotional candor and a witty,
jaundiced point of view that skewers modern life but (just) avoids
caricature. You appreciate Danny and Ray's funky humor while seeing
through it to their desperate hearts. I cried when I read the last
page --- not because it's so sad but because it's so good.

More than Egan's earlier novels (THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS; the National
Book Award-nominated LOOK AT ME), impressive as they were, THE KEEP
has a unity of purpose. It is built cleverly and meticulously, on
levels from the subterranean to the transcendent, and it is
dominated by language --- not just the way we talk to others, but
the inner dialogue through which we invent ourselves. This sort of
complexity can be accomplished only by a novel, not a film or TV
show. The turns it takes, the leaps it makes, the surprises it
springs on us depend on the turning of the page, the reading of the
words. This rich, trick-filled, emotionally satisfying book is like
our own imaginative door or window, our way out of the cave. (And
for the price of less than two movie tickets, you can own

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011

The Keep
by Jennifer Egan

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400079748
  • ISBN-13: 9781400079742