It is not an uncommon phenomenon for young writers to struggle with their voice. Often, from story to story and book to book, literary novices experiment with different styles of dialogue and narration. Rarely, however, has this
experimentation occurred with such frequency within a single novel, as in Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep.” The latest from the 2001 National Book Award finalist is an intriguing and brave, but shaky, foray into the realm of Gothic horror.
“The Keep” begins in that most Gothic of settings: a crumbling castle nestled in the mountains of Eastern Europe. It is here that Danny King – an immature, power-obsessed ne’er-do-wel l- has been summoned by his cousin Howard, an up-and-coming entrepreneur equipped with a dream, and the cash to make it happen. Fleeing a series of unpaid debts and an underworld grudge from his home in New York, Danny jumps at the chance to help Howard renovate the ages-old castle into a resort hotel.
As the story progresses, the reader meets Egan’s first narrator, Ray Dobbs, a convict enrolled in – and jotting down the cousins’ story for – a prison writing course. Ray’s story gradually intertwines with the cousins’, and the two tales slowly converge. When the cousins are forced to relive a traumatic childhood event, the true significance of both stories becomes startlingly clear. In the face of almost certain death, Danny finally comes into maturity. As he does so, Danny is greeted by revelations about the nature of power, and his relation to the world around him; but nothing is able to prepare the reader for the astonishing revelation soon made about the nature of Ray’s crime.
Egan’s narrative repeatedly shifts between Ray and Danny’s tales, before eventually and unnecessarily embarking on another tangent in the book’s final pages. Through these varied voices, Egan attempts to craft a story working on a myriad. At once, “The Keep” is a Gothic tribute, an examination of the power of imagination, a condemnation of the addictive properties of modern technology, a love story, a rumination on the nature of reality, and much more. Perhaps, however, Egan should have opted for a more straightforward parable – operating on so many levels, with so many shifts in plot and narration, “The Keep” seems busy and pointlessly crowded. As Ray puts it: “Someone’s always doing the talking,
just a lot of times you don’t know who it is or what their reasons are.”
There is no question that Jennifer Egan has the potential, as her National Book Award nomination attests, to become a brilliant writer. There are sentences, paragraphs, even whole pages in “The Keep” that sparkle with wit and wisdom. Overall, however, Egan seems as lost and unsteady as many of her characters. Let us hope that, like Danny, she someday finds within herself the ability to vanquish her self-doubt and indecision, and truly come into her own.
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.