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Keep, The (Book)

The Keep
Written by Jennifer Egan

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

236 pages


The sins of the past come back to haunt, sort of, in this new novel by National Book Award finalist Jennifer Egan. However, those unfamiliar with her previous works will probably not find a new favorite writer with this one. What was undoubtedly a literary experiment with style and clever plot devices comes off as confusing and incomprehensible. There are some moments of genuine terror to be had within the pages, but they are few and are marred by the clumsy narrative and the ham-fisted attempt at a clever gimmick of writing.

The Keep is a story within a story. The main focus is on a pair of cousins, who travel to a distant land to renovate a castle into a resort. Early in their lives, a prank nearly cost one of them his life, a fact which leads the reader down all sorts of false corridors of anticipation, waiting for something that never comes. The secondary plot revolves around the prison inmate who is writing the story about the cousins for his prison creative writing class. Still with me? From the beginning, Egan’s novel reads like something a high-school freshman would come up with. That she meant to write it that way does little to keep the reader’s attention, nor does it fill the reader with any real desire to read it through to the end. In fact, until the reader figures out that Egan is writing the book as the character, one might guess that this manuscript wound up the publish pile by accident. Once the identity of the narrator has been established, it is still difficult to forgive the language, though one does certainly get a feel for the character in question. In fact, in many cases, he’ll explain himself to the readers.

Plot-wise, this story comes across as very thin. For starters, there’s really no conflict in either story, nor is there any real resolution. Danny was the high-school athelete while his cousin, Howard, was the class misfit. After a prank that left the latter stranded in a cave for three days, the former inexplicably moves on to a life of crime while the latter briefly dabbles in crime before moving on to become a wealthy-beyond-reason stock trader. When Howard buys a castle in Europe, he calls Danny to come and help him with it. Why he would do so might be easy to guess, but you’d be guessing wrong. The other plot, that of the story teller, is all about his attempt to get his creative writing teacher to notice him and the perils of prison life.

The characters in this novel all start off well, headed toward something nice and juicy, building toward a climax, but that climax never arrives. Danny’s bad-guy act comes off as unconvincing, at best, whereas Howard’s king-of-the-world seems a little far-fetched. The character of Ray, the convict writing the whole thing, is generic, the gentle inmate with a terrifying past that no one really believes. The teacher, whose part in the whole book is peripheral at best, is the most complex of the characters. Although her motivations come through, in the end she makes decisions that seem to make no sense for the character, pulling the reader out of the illusion of the book.

However, there are some moments in the book in which Egan’s reputation as a top-notch writer shines through. Her descriptions of the castle are quite vivid, as are her descriptions of the town below it and the mysterious “Keep.” Through her descriptive power, the reader will find themselves experiencing, in a few scenes, the claustrophobic sensations of being trapped in a tunnel miles below ground, as well as a quick descent into madness suffered by Daniel. Though the slip is never fully explained and comes on quite fast, the reader is able to follow his paranoia and delusions from the first moment he has them. Also, her descriptions of certain events in the prison, the cataloging of words to tell the time and her vivid details surrounding a stabbing, are, for lack of a better word, brilliant devices that will have readers nodding and thinking.

However, is it horror? Yes and no. Certainly there are aspects of horror in both stories. Form the point of view of Ray, there is his life inside the prison, among rapists and murderers and meth-addicts. The every-day horrors of his life could certainly give a reader pause, but could not really be classified as horror. The story he writes, however, does qualify as horror in the same vein as Psycho or Se7en does, or would if the characters would just get on with the acts they seem written toward. That they do not makes this book a frustrating read.

Simply put, The Keep is intentionally written to sound as if someone who is borderline-illiterate wrote it, and it accomplishes the goal wonderfully. It also has a few moments in which readers will squirm in their chairs over the actions of not only the characters in Ray’s story, but in his life as well. However, after the last page, readers will more than likely be left wondering what happened, or if the last few chapters wound up missing by mistake, as there seems to be so much more left for the characters to say or do.

2.5 out of 5

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Jon Condit