Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep begins with Danny, who is running away from nameless problems in New York (the mob?) and running toward an unknown something that may be worse: his cousin Howie. When they were adolescents, Howie was a fat nerd (and – gasp! – adopted, which seems to go along with Egan’s picture of Howie as generally unloved by parents and kids alike). Danny, wanting to distance himself, played a vicious prank on his cousin that changed both of them. Now they are adults, and Howie is a phenomenally charismatic and successful businessman, and Danny is a wannabe, a has-been, a number two, always looking for the scam, the con, the moneymaking power play that will get him where he wants to be. If he knew where that was.
For the moment, he’s headed somewhere in Europe – exactly where is never specified – to help Howie with his latest investment: a resort, of a kind, at a castle he’s restoring. At the castle there is a keep, the place where treasures would be kept safe if the castle were under attack, and there is a baroness, unimaginably old, who lives there. How can Danny help? Why does Howie really want him there? We don’t know, and neither does Danny.
The narration is atmospheric, Gothic (and I mean technically Gothic – castles, labyrinthine passages, ghosts, deep forest), and laced with a wry wit. But every so often, Egan jars the reader out of the smooth flow of it with a bump of metanarrative. After a certain space of time, it becomes clear that the real narrator is not Danny at all, but a prison inmate, Ray Dobbs, creating Danny for his writing class on Tuesdays. And then it unfolds further, to another layer, taking us further still out of Danny’s life. Was Danny ever real? Was Ray? Is Ray represented by someone in his own story? Who? What about the Keep? Is it a symbol (it is tremendously phallic, next to the perfectly round marble pool) or the key to the roman à clef, or what?
Trying to read the story as an allegory doesn’t work. There is symbolism, but it is not rich or textured enough for that. The language is interesting, but it is supposed to be in the voice of Ray Dobbs, who is an inexperienced and inarticulate writer; it doesn’t dazzle and it dabbles in clichés. (It reminded me of Stephen King’s saying that sometimes what you want to eat is a bologna sandwich. It doesn’t have to be pâté to be something you want to eat.) And finally, my opinion was that the multiplicity of voices subtracted from the story rather than adding to it. I wanted to stay with Danny. Like some of Ray’s fellow inmates, I was uncomfortable waiting; I was itchy with anticipation; I wanted to know what happened. Even though the language was sometimes dumbed down, the story was powerful and emotionally riveting, and I wanted more. Why not just write it?
Worse than that, though, was that the story (both Danny’s and Ray’s) came to an ending at the same time – a truly great, satisfying ending, with a few ambiguous loose narrative ends still trailing. Egan then added an extra chapter, a sort of coda, with yet a third narrator, that tied up all the narrative extra bits, but took a lot of the sense out of the book, and made some of it feel rather silly. (I should add, though, that this part of the book was very strong emotionally, despite the fact that I think it was unnecessary from a plot point of view. Some of the images and phrases that are with me still, over a week later, are from this narrator’s voice and life. I still think Egan should have done it differently.)
Overall, I’m glad I read the book. It was interesting and creepy, and I’ll probably read her other novel, Look At Me. The Keep was ambitious, and it had some problems, but it was worth reading, if only for the glimpse into the lives of the characters at the heart of it.