Onyx reviews: The Keep by Jennifer
The Keep by Jennifer Egan (author of Look at Me) starts out with a man named
Danny who is escaping from unspecified trouble in Manhattan by traveling to an
ancient castle in a vaguely defined Central European location at the invitation
of his cousin, who he hasn't seen in years. When they were kids, Danny and Howie
made up fantasy worlds ala Dungeons and Dragons. Danny and some friends
abandoned Howie in an underground cavern during one of these adventures, where
he remained lost for three days. When Howie mentions a maze of tunnels beneath
the castle, readers might wonder if he has plans to pay Danny back for that
Howie and his wife own the castle, the folly of several previous owners. He is
converting it into a posh, technology-free retreat, and to that end has enlisted
the aid of a gaggle of graduate students who are supposedly there as part of an
educational exchange but are really just cheap labor. In the keep-the part of
the castle meant to be its last stronghold in case of attack-lives an old woman
who claims the castle as her ancestral home and refuses to be evicted. What her
relationship is to the legend of twins who drowned in the courtyard pool remains
to be seen.
Danny's life in New York was all about connections. He's the guy who knows
everyone and how to reach them. He can sense the presence of a wireless internet
signal. He brought with him a small satellite dish so he can access his network
of contacts via cell phone and e-mail-a plan that is quickly dashed when his
dish ends up at the bottom of the aforementioned pool. He also has several
strange affectations, including a tendency to wear lipstick and makeup.
The fact that Danny doesn't know exactly what country he's in is the first hint
that something's a little bit "off." The third person recounting of
his story has the unpolished feel of an amateur writer. Lists of details
resembling an outline interrupt the narrative, or it turns into pages of
colon-delimited dialog, like a play. The omniscient narrator breaks in to defend
why only three pages cover a forty-five-minute period. "There were other
things going on in the room that I didn't write down because I would've needed
pages and pages, which I don't have, not to mention it would be boring as
When Danny meets one of the denizens of the castle, the point of view abruptly
rotates to show Danny from her perspective ("Here is what Nora saw:")
but with full knowledge of his past. It's the sort of mistake a rookie unaware
of the rules of viewpoint might make-but Egan isn't a novice. There's more at
work here than that.
Not everything that happens to Danny seems real, including a fantastic encounter
with the baroness who lives in the keep. It's modern gothic crossed with Doctor
Who (the episode Castrovalva, to be specific). When he tries to escape the
castle by fleeing to the town at the base of the hill, he discovers that it's
not the same place he passed through on his inbound journey and all streets seem
to lead back to the town square. The bus to the train station never comes. When
he purchases a map in an antiques store to distract the shopkeeper, his random
acquisition proves to be the very thing his cousin needs to explore the tunnels
beneath the castle.
Complicating the novel is a parallel storyline that at first seems to have no
relationship to Danny's adventures. In it, a drug addict and murderer named Ray
joins a prison creative writing program and becomes smitten with Holly, the
teacher, who has a dark past of her own. He writes to impress her. Light bulbs
may start going on in readers' heads when they realize what he's writing about.
The Keep is a metafictional novel that explores the creative process while at
the same time telling a thought-provoking tale. It's also something of a mobius
strip as fantasy and reality switch places. Danny's fate will surely surprise
many readers, as will Holly's rise to the novel's forefront late in the game.
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