Review: The Keep

the_keep_coverI 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.

Review: Look At Me

look at me coverJennifer Egan is exceptionally talented. As much carping as I’ve done about poorly written books, you’d think I’d curl up with the words of a brilliant author in a ball of contentment. But this book fails in execution; the best example is to compare it to the movie 300: the slow-mo battle sequences are bad@$$ and necessary (how else would you be able to discern every nuance of Leonidas’ awesomeness?), but too many lesser scenes in slo-mo dilute the overall effect. By the time the viewer sees the Queen walking in slo-mo (again) and dipping her hands in a fountain, they cease to be transfixed and begin to ponder that eternal question of the modern cinematic age: how long would 300 be sans slo-mo?

The main storyline is Charlotte Swenson putting her life back together after a horrific car accident that has left her with 80 titanium screws in her face. As a former model, she is still beautiful, but no one recognizes her reconstructed face. Early on, she meets the daughter of a childhood friend (also named Charlotte). The lives of the two Charlottes mirror each other in an interesting fashion, but more and more characters are dropped into the narrative. They’re all interlinked, but not in a particularly interesting or clever way. Somehow, everyone in this book is caught in the throes of The Most Pivotal Moment of Their Lives [exclamation point]. Taken independently, their stories are interesting, but when placed together they detract from one another. Each of the (by my count) six ‘main’ characters have their own supporting ensembles, convoluted back-stories, and agendas. Since most don’t intersect directly with Charlotte’s situation, they serve nothing to advance the plot, only to advance much navel-gazing masquerading as a deep critique of identity.Who is Charlotte Swenson now that she has lost her face? Who is Ricky now that he’s no longer sick? Who is… who is… All interesting questions mind you—there are just so many that there’s not enough momentum to go around. Let me amend that—there is one character soaking up the momentum: aptly named Moose, he lumbers around in a pseudo-philosophical haze, stoking his obsession with the Industrial Revolution. His scenes are interminable.

Nearly every action in this book is foreshadowed, painstakingly explained, fully supported, and followed up upon. Have you ever seen anyone ‘study’ by highlighting every word in a text? When everything is important, nothing is. It’s rare that a character speaks a line without an explanatory paragraph to dissect their mental state and intention.

Had Egan structured this book as she did her interconnected short stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it would have been amazing! It would have helped her whittle down each of the six main plot lines to their most essential moments and allow their stories to end naturally. As is, there is a unspeakably clumsy ending in which everyone winds up in a cornfield during Charlotte Swenson’s improbable climax. I felt as though Egan was pressured to bring everything together at the same time. When the ‘answers’ to the central mysteries of this novel are finally answered, there isn’t much relief in knowing—nothing is changed and it turns out that Charlotte knew the cause of her car crash the whole time (the only mystery I’d been curious about).

I finished this book to the end only for the writing. Egan is truly gifted. Her ability to describe a common scene and make it extraordinary is unrivaled. Her critique of modern identity and consumerist culture is interesting; she sets up scenes as demonstrations, withholding her own viewpoints to let the viewer draw theirs (heavy-handed preachy types have no business writing fiction). But her characters never truly come to life: they’re demonstrations of people run aground, not actual people.

I usually have a quote… Michael West’s first McDonald’s Big Mac is a pretty momentous scene, but I’ve decided to go with the following sentence (Egan tends towards the long, internal stuff when writing Moose). I know I said I wasn’t a fan of the Moose scenes, but I did enjoy his Eureka! moment. (His pendulous uvula brought me back to the good ol’ Saturday morning cartoons.) Not all of her sentences are this long (thank goodness!), but it is a fair sampling of her writing in this novel of which so much is internal.

In Moose’s imagination there was a break, a snap, and then a great many things ensued with a drastic simultaneity that was the hallmark of mental events unfettered by the constraints of physical possibility:  he bellowed (mentally), “Yyyyyeeeeeeeessssss!,” his uvula swinging like a pendulum at the back of his throat, the prolonged, gut-heaving force of his yell loosening the support beams over his head and sending tiny fissures through the walls of Meeker Hall, which widened into cracks and gaps and then gullies, so that shortly the building was collapsing over their heads: desks, computers, books, a hecatomb of didacticism and scholarship and cruelty (toward him) reduced to nonsense by a single yell from the man they’d relegated to the basement, but that wasn’t all – his yell sent shock waves through the soil in whose depths they’d forced him to work, waves that burrowed under those delicately landscaped hills and dales and dells and playing fields, so that the buildings whose halcyon views they enhanced were shaken to their foundations, and by the time he reached the sssss of Yyyyyeeeeeeeesssss, a thunderous general collapse was in progress that threatened to spread indefinitely, his departmental colleagues airborne and whirling like locusts, desks, files, documents intended to effect his dismissal (he knew it! He knew it!), all of these separated and broke and divided until they were blowing in the breeze like the furry seeds of dandelions, and in the silence that seeped over the world following this juggernaut, a silence like the falling of night, Moose stepped from his basement hole and surveyed the wreckage his affirmation had wrought and was pleased, yes, he was satisfied.

Overall: 3. The writing is good, but the pacing is rubbish. I should rank it lower, because I felt like I was clawing my way through the dense prose of the latter half of the novel, but I really like Jennifer Egan. And she can write. I Loved A Visit from the Goon Squad; I read The Keep in a single sitting… when she sharpens her focus and doesn’t get bogged down in a half dozen characters and dozens of supporting characters, she’s really, really good. If this book had been tighter, it would be stellar. This novel is ambitious and falls short.

Translation: Don’t read this; read something else Egan has written.