Monday, June 20, 2011

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This novel is a little bit gothic, and a little bit rock and roll. It is full of rabbit holes and dramatic shifts of perception. There's a ghost story, some romance, life-threatening adventure, childhood trauma, and deep dark, secrets. In short, it's got just about everything crammed into it, and yet it flows along smoothly, and the shocking surprises seem utterly plausible. Very impressive.

Danny, a wannabe New York player, finds himself scaling the walls of a castle somewhere in the no-man's land between Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic - fairy tale land. His cousin is trying to create an experiential vacation spot for tourists seeking inner peace. Or something. There's a traumatic childhood secret binding and repelling these two, and the situation at the castle is fraught with interpersonal dysfunction and possibly a little supernatural shenanigans. I hesitate to say much else, because the twists and turns should really be experienced with the sudden intensity that comes from complete ignorance. There is a second simultaneous story in the novel, about a prison inmate and his writing teacher; I wouldn't call it subplot, exactly, more a concurrent reality.

Suffice to say the complete story is told from the points of view of several different characters. These perspectives are different enough to really pretzel your mind, in a way I found most satisfying. In the end there are several unanswered questions; in fact, the whole narrative seems to be about opening one door after another, wandering down hallways, becoming intrigued more with the path than the destination. There is also an underlying theme of conectedness: Danny, who relies on his digital connections to feel any sense of self, is cut off from the outside world the moment he steps inside the castle grounds. Ray, the lifer, is cut off from the self he left outside the prison walls. Questions about the nature of reality, and communication, and maintaining personal strongholds are intertwined in a manner that makes (this)  reader wonder if she has any idea what these things mean at all.

There's a lot going on in this book, much of it funny, some of it heartbreaking, all of it written with a vividness that makes it seem immediate and real. There's so much story telling going on, you might fail to notice that it's written very, very well.

Here's an interview Jennifer Egan did with the editor of the New York Times Book Review - no spoilers, and she's enviously articulate.

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