Review of The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

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Book Review of The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The Keep in Jennifer Egan’s novel is the central fortress of an Eastern European castle, furnished with enough weapons, supplies, and secret tunnels, at least in centuries gone by, to withstand a siege by hostile forces.

The Keep begins with a man named Danny arriving at the castle after dark and not being able to find his way in. It’s dark and beginning to rain, it had been a hellish trip from New York, and there’s nobody to greet Danny or let him into this crumbling castle on the edge of cliff. Danny has come at the request of his cousin, Howard, who has bought the castle with plans to turn it into some sort of resort or retreat.

All in all, Danny would rather be just about anywhere else. Howard was the weird cousin that inspired either whispers or laughter. When they were kids, Danny was part of a prank that left Howard lost in a series of caves for three days.

It left Howard with emotional scars and a childhood of trouble. At some point Howard turned his life around and made a fortune. Danny hadn’t heard from Howard for years when he received the phone call out of the blue inviting him to this castle in the middle of nowhere. Nobody was even sure what country it was in. It was at a time Danny needed to get away from trouble hounding him in New York, so he agreed to come.

Danny finally makes his way into the castle and is reunited with Howard, who apparently holds no ill will against Danny for the childhood prank. Howard has brought his wife and kids with him, and is accompanied by a group of graduate students and his second-in-command, Mick. Howard has plans to turn the castle into a retreat from modern life with no phones and no electronics of any kind. This is exactly the opposite of Danny’s lifestyle.

His life has been one that taps into the hum of life in New York City, working in restaurants and clubs, being tied into the lives and gossip that kept him connected to whatever was hot at the moment. He’s the fish out of water at the castle, but Howard is counting on him to find whatever he’s missing to make the castle complete, a skill Danny is supposed to possess.

The castle didn’t quite come without any strings attached. There is a scum-filled pool where the previous owners’ twins drowned. Danny swears he can see them at times. Then there’s the keep, occupied by the baroness whose family used to own the castle. She insists the castle really belongs to her and she will defend it at all costs.

There are supposed to be secret tunnels, torture dungeons, and leftover relics from its medieval days. Danny is going nuts there. He knows he doesn’t belong. He misses the New York scene so badly that he’s brought a satellite phone with him and desperately wants to get it to work. He sees things that can’t really be there, and is afraid he’s falling victim to the worm:

Fear was dangerous. It let in the worm: another word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago, smoking pot or doing lines of coke and wondering what to call that thing that happened to people when they lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic?

Those words were all too flat. But the worm, which is the word they finally picked. the worm was three-dimensional: it crawled inside a person and started to eat until everything collapsed, their whole lives, and they ended up getting strung out or going back home to their folks or being admitted to Bellevue or, in the case of one girl they all knew, jumping off the Manhattan Bridge.

The castle is more of a dangerous place than Danny assumed. Walls are crumbling, doors don’t open, and he keeps seeing and hearing things that don’t make sense to him. After he falls and hits his head, he’s not sure what’s real anymore, what’s a dream, and what’s a hallucination. He doesn’t trust anyone, least of all Howard, who is being way too nice and weird at the same time. Things can only go wrong and leaving seems impossible.

Danny’s story is interrupted at times by the person telling it, Ray, a prisoner in a penitentiary who is taking a writing class. Ray has the hots for Holly, the woman teaching the creative writing class. The other inmates in the class want to know where he got this story, and he tells them he heard it from someone. Ray only took the class to get away from his crazy cellmate, and now he’s discovered a talent he didn’t know he had. He wants Holly to like his story and his writing, but her attention makes the other inmates jealous.

The Keep defies categorization, which works in its favor. It’s part gothic ghost story, part prison story, a fish-out-of-water story, and a psychological thriller. It’s more than a sum of these parts. Jennifer Egan has crafted a story that keeps the reader devouring each page with its suspense and unpredictability, at least for most of the novel.

The first time Ray interrupts Danny’s story is jarring and some readers will be put off by it. Danny’s story is suspenseful enough, so why suddenly insert Ray’s story into it too? The other inmates could care less about Ray; they want to know how Danny’s story plays out. Ray’s story over time becomes engrossing as well, although the reader is left wondering how his story can have any bearing on Danny’s story.

The dichotomy between Danny’s story, where his grip on reality appears to be loosening, and Ray’s story, where the reality is stark and devoid of hope, contributes to the tension. The first two parts of The Keep alternate between Danny’s and Ray’s story, each building to a climax, with a denouement that caught me by surprise.

If the novel would have ended at the end of Part II, it would have been the best novel I’d read in a while. There would have been unanswered questions, but the type of questions that keep readers buzzing about the book, wondering what it really meant. Instead, Jennifer Egan added Part III, which tells Holly’s story, although it’s relatively short. It also serves to answer all the questions and bring the story full circle, but it’s anticlimactic at best.

The Keep, the center of the castle and Jennifer Egan’s novel, stands as an obvious metaphor for the prisons, whether physical or emotional, in her characters’ lives. These keeps, these prisons, are the hindrances that foster each character’s isolation and attempts to find some level of happiness in their lives. Each of them begins to find a touch of the happiness they desire when they finally allow themself to reach out to someone else.

It’s also this reaching out to others that puts them in peril. On the surface, Jennifer Egan’s novel seems a disjointed jumble of stories and themes, but the underlying current that binds them all together eventually becomes obvious.

Both Danny and Ray are complex characters, men who often tread on the wrong side of right, but are driven by a survival instinct we can all acknowledge. The reader comes to care about what eventually happens to these men, and the confusing events that threaten to overwhelm them. The castle itself becomes a character in the story, slowly giving up its secrets, to both the characters and the reader.

The Keep is the type of novel you want to press into the hands of family and friends when you’re done with it. Jennifer Egan skillfully weaves the different stories together, from Danny struggling to find his place and his role in the dark, gloomy castle, to Ray just trying to find a way to make each day meaningful enough to live to the next.

The keep looms at the center of their stories, pulling them closer to the secrets and dangers it holds, drawing us in along with them, until its shocking conclusion explodes right off the page. This is one edgy, wonderful novel.

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