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Onyx reviews: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

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 early trauma.

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 hell."

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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