Novel: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

April 10, 2015

In The Keep (2006), Jennifer Egan subverts her own talent¬†by writing from the POV of a character whose ability with words doesn’t quite match her own. It’s the kind of move only a master can pull off, but this is just one of the many expectation-defying elements of this uniquely layered, mesmerizing novel.

It’s the story of two cousins, whose childhood paths reunite in the mysterious mountains of eastern Europe. Danny is an aimless maverick who flees New York City at the behest of his cousin Howard. Danny and Howard shared a certain childhood connection over games of the imagination, but their friendship was severed by a traumatic event. Years later, Howard is an extremely successful businessman, who has shed his youthful nerdiness to become powerful and charismatic. He’s bought a remote castle near the triple border of Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, and he wants Danny to help him convert it into an exclusive hotel, disconnected from the outside world. This proves challenging for the wired, social media addicted Danny, whose brain starts playing tricks on him in a setting that grows increasingly weird, magical, and sinister.

This story, in itself, is vividly realized: a tale of two cousins on different trajectories, with a dark shared event clouding their pasts and adding tension to their decades-later interactions. The setting is convincingly rendered, while also conjuring the bizarre ambience¬†of a schlocky psychological horror film from the 1970s. Even on its own, this track is compelling, but Egan builds additional levels atop this primary narrative, pulling back to gradually reveal the story of the prison inmate who is writing Danny and Howard’s story, and then the workshop instructor who ultimately revises it. It’s a clever metafictional feat, to say the least, stories within stories that share intriguing thematic resonance.

In my eyes The Keep didn’t quite possess the compulsive readability of Look at Me, or the mindblowing artistry of A Visit from the Goon Squad. But it’s yet another remarkable piece of work from an author who has easily become one of my absolute favorites.