Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I was poking around Amazon and was surprised to see Jennifer Egan’s The Keep ranked 3.3 of 5. It made me reconsider my high opinion of this book (4.5 at least!), but I’ve decided to stick by it. I first read The Keep a few years ago. While I recommended it then, I didn’t love it as much as when I read it a second (and third) time this year. The story is split with different narrators; the cleverer aspects of the set-up are less apparent on a first reading and the reader is left with a patchwork story that feels more gimmicky than compelling. (So, if you don’t like it: read it again.)

The first part chronicles a nasty childhood trick that Danny played on his cousin Howie. This exchange frames their later interactions when Danny answers Howie’s summons to a decrepit castle in Europe. Howie aims to convert the castle to a high-end resort that will return guests to their imaginative roots by stripping them of all phones, computers, and electronic devices. His pitch begins with a reminiscence for the old days:

People were constantly seeing ghosts, having visions—they thought Christ was sitting with them at the dinner table, they thought angels and devils were flying around. We don’t see those things anymore. Why? Was all that stuff happening before then it stopped? Unlikely. Was everyone nuts in medieval times? Doubtful. But their imaginations were more active. Their inner lives were rich and weird. (47)

There is a lot of whining these days about young people being glued to their phones and not present. Howie’s argument that technology be dumped in order to unfetter the imagination is a fun angle to an old concern that opens the book to dreamy, gothic elements. To better push peoples’ imagination, the castle is being restored with respect to its original design and fixtures. Its most notable feature is the Keep where the Baroness, an old woman, is holed up. Being the last of her family, she is unimpressed with Howie’s attempts to lure her out and unearth the castle’s hidden passages:

And I told them, I will never leave this place. I am this place. I am every person who has lived here for nine hundred years. It’s beyond ownership. It simply is. (88)

The Baroness adds a mystical twist and gives the castle a malevolent edge. When Danny encounters her, the result is a strange delusion and misunderstanding. The longer Danny remains in the castle, away from his phone, the more he becomes paranoid and uncertain of his surroundings. He worries that Howie wants revenge and has brought him to the castle to break him into madness. Without his phone, Danny feels lost, wrenched out of his life:

To Danny, the thought of disappearing like that was worse than dying. If you were dead, fine. But being alive but invisible, unreachable, unfindable—it would be like those nightmares he used to have where he couldn’t move, where he seemed to be dead and everyone thought he was dead but he could still feel and hear everything that went on. (47)

After Danny is established, Ray makes an appearance. The fourth wall comes down and the narrator introduces himself as a prison inmate who is taking a writing course. The book then bounces back and forth between Ray and Danny (with Ray’s clarifications). Ray is a mediocre writer who interrupts himself to better explain Danny and himself. As a writer (sort of), I love these interjections. They’re a unique way to gain insight into Ray’s character while simultaneously developing Danny’s story. Though he isn’t the “best” writer in a technical sense, Ray’s discussion of the writing process and his quibbles over word choice and characterization are entertaining. They allow his dry humor to spice up scenes that would otherwise be stale:

It was only when Danny stood up that the wine walloped him. He felt weird. And see, I have a problem here, because I keep saying, Danny felt weird. And Danny felt weird. So how is this weird any different from all the other weird ways he’s felt? Well, here’s how: Those other weirds were the opposite of calm and fine, but this weird was calm and fine. Danny felt calm and fine, but also like he was asleep. Or at least not awake. His brain was cut off from his body, which had gotten out of its chair and was following the baroness to the door. (95)

Danny’s story is more interesting than Ray’s; I was riveted by the moody, claustrophobic castle and Danny’s quest to stay connected. That said, Egan toggles between the two stories in such a way to keep both moving and engaging. The third narrator, who only surfaces at the end, is Ray’s writing teacher, Holly. I’m divided on her section, but it’s undoubtedly the weakest of the three. It has elements of a tacky epilogue, but contains enough information to be essential. It’s a ham-fisted attempt to bring early plot points full circle, but fleshes out a character who would otherwise be dry. Is it enough that it’s well-written? When I first read The Keep, I disliked this section. The second time through, it felt better integrated despite the mood/tone/voice shift from when Ray was speaking. The third time, I skimmed.

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5). I understand why many readers find the layered structure off-putting, even confusing, but it’s a fantastic reread. I’d have given it a 3.5 before, but it earns a 4.5 now. It’s much more cohesive than Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and miles above Look at Me.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan”

  1. Trying to make sense of Amazon rankings for books would baffle Einstein. I gave up years ago, after reading a spate of simply marvellous 5-star best thing since sliced bread books and found them distinctly average. I find blog reviews much more informative and reliable on the whole, so you stick with your 4.5 stars!

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