Hey, why don’t you come to my Eastern-European castle and… you know… hang out?
You have every right to be leery of your cousin when he makes you an offer like this, and likewise Danny, a thirty-something drifter, reluctantly accepts Howard’s invitation. Howard is a self-made millionaire who bought his own obscure castle in Bulgaria to convert it into a hotel. Not just any hotel, but one that’s completely off the grid– no cell phones, TV, or internet allowed– so guests will experience a stark, distraction-free existence that may jumpstart the imagination and change lives.
At least that’s Howard’s pitch. Danny is unsure of Howard’s motive in bringing his useless ass to the castle, and he begins to suspect malice. See, when they were kids, Danny was accessory to a cruel “prank” that left Howard isolated in a dark cave for three traumatic days. Is Howard truly giving Danny a new start on life, or is he crafting a long-awaited revenge plot? Meanwhile, the castle isn’t helping; be it haunted or… something, Danny is noticing increasing distortions of reality that eventually become a waking nightmare.
Not what I’d expect from the Pulitzer-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, but that need not be a bad thing. While not such a celebration of brilliance as that book was, The Keep is Jennifer Egan’s modern gothic story that’s also about one’s relationship with the past.
TV Fun Fact: Last year it was announced that A Visit From the Goon Squad got the greenlight for an HBO series. And that, I’m afraid, may be the last we hear of that.
If you so much as hint that a novel will feature a descent into madness, I’ve already got my repelling gear packed and my headlamp strapped on and I’m waiting in the car honking the horn let’s go let’s go let’s go! For all that, The Keep doesn’t go so far down the rabbit hole as I would like, choosing instead to develop other elements.
He’s Been Framed
Early on we discover that this is all a story written by Ray, a convicted felon in a prison writing workshop. Ah, that explains the annoying intercessions our narrator has been making. So The Keep jumps between the tale of Danny trapped in the castle and Ray trapped in prison and seeking intimacy with his female workshop instructor. Essentially the prose is Jennifer Egan imitating an inmate imitating Stephen King. Recognizing the frame, you immediately go to work justifying how this story came from Ray, and why this is what he writes. How is Egan going to connect these two disparate narratives?
No spoilers, but she does. The surprise twist at the end is genuine, but it does trivialize the castle’s mystery.
When you’re impersonating an underdeveloped writer, you’re really asking for it. Should you succeed, the prose ought to convince people they’re stuck reading a contribution from some mediocre fellow in writing workshop. That’s what we call an unwanted success. It’s not without benefit, though, because then any questionable writing choices can be blamed on your persona.
Does This Castle Have Wi-Fi?
It’s a good story, overall. Different as it is from Goon Squad, The Keep is still recognizably Egan. Turns out she’s always been exploring the human need of connection in the digital age, and doing it well.
Danny is so psychologically dependent on internet and cell phones as a means of interaction that he believes he has the uncanny ability to detect when there’s wireless internet access (skin tingles, hair stands on end). For him, it means the potential of always going somewhere:
He was crossing Washington Square talking on his cell phone to his friend Zach, who was in Machu Picchu in the middle of a snowstorm, and it hit him–wham–that he was at home right at that instant… being somewhere but not completely: that was home for Danny, and it sure as hell was easier to land than a decent apartment.
His need for technology springs from his fear of facing where he truly is. We can all think of someone like that, if not ourselves.
While the Ray half of the story is, to me, a bad idea, it does have some powerful moments. I’ll remember when Ray’s cellmate, Davis, shows him a radio he constructed out of an Adidas shoebox with dials punched into the side– it picks up the voices of the dead, as Davis claims. Ray humors him as they listen for ghosts, and then something curious happens:
“What if it actually does what Davis says? And in that split second I go from pretending straight into believing–it’s like all the pretending made me believe…“
It reads as a metaphor for the power of story. And my eyes don’t roll. That’s an example of why an Egan book that’s nowhere near perfect is still worth reading.
Read it if
1. You want a short, modern gothic novel that’s a tad ambitious.
2. You can frickin’ find it.