The Keep

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Thursday, April 05, 2007
by Jennifer Egan
This book is a layer cake, or maybe russian nesting dolls. I will spare you the tortured cake analogy I devised (there was fondant frosting of...dread!) and try to identify some of what made this book so enjoyable for me without giving away any of its twisty turns. (oh no! now I have revealed that there are twisty turns!)

The Keep has the hallmarks of a classic gothic novel: twins, ghosts, childhood trauma, shifting alliances, untrustworthy narrator(s), untrustworthy everyone else, spooky moonlight, crumbling castles, underground passageways, thwarted escape, claustrophobia, story within story -- yet there is a crackly modern energy that keeps it from being a pastiche. Being able to comment on a genre from within is tricky, but I think Egan pulls it off beautifully. I know Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters did a bit of this back in the day, but hers were generally intended to be FUNNY and were often set in the past, which, while presenting difficulties of their own does allow for a little "ho ho, isn't it ridiculous that I, Plucky McGoverness, am running across the moor in my nightie chased by a wolf who may or may not be the Master of Blacktower when the moon is not full" distance. The Keep doesn't allow that kind of comic separation because it takes the world of the novel (even as it turns inside out at various points) very seriously. It does have a different distancing mechanism which I cannot reveal without giving too much away! (note to self: this "mustn't give too much away" thing is very convenient when it's hard to think of what to write.)

I first read this novel in August/Septemberish of last year and a couple of things have really stuck with me. First, I love that Egan gave a name to The Worm, that little parasite of doubt that can unfold in the gut if one is not vigilant. "Fear was dangerous. It let in the worm: another word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago, smoking pot or doing lines of coke and wondering what to call that thing that happened to people when they lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic? Those words were all too flat. But the worm, which is the word they finally picked, the worm was three dimensional: it crawled inside a person and started to eat until everything collapsed..."

Other things (beyond The Worm and the darting loop de loops the plot took in the last third) have stayed with me. She makes some "technology is the new magic" arguments which are not new, but I found them particularly interesting in the context of the gothic; I've enjoyed turning them over in my head, anyway. The other thing, which was really only glanced upon (and by a somewhat unreliable character), was the notion that many of us modern day mortals have lost the ability to amuse ourselves. Imaginations have become flabby and lazy; the convenience and constant availability of modern entertainments have removed the need to create our own songs and stories. This raised the specter of one of my multi-part perennial rants (topic of "amateur isn't a dirty word"), but that's veering off a bit further than I intend right now. (Here's a tiny bit: Not only do we no longer believe we can do it -- or have the right to do it, since it has now entered the realm of the "professional" -- but we no longer even think to try. Obviously, I don't mean people who identify as writers or painters or musicians whether they get paid or not -- I'm talking about people who are so out of touch with their own innate creativity that they think it's not something they even have a right to explore. I get really wound up about this for some reason.)

Back to The Keep: It was a lot of fun! If you like gothic stories you'll probably like it too, unless you don't like someone mucking around with the form a bit -- if that's the case, it might just make you mad. Anyway, I found the ending to be surprising (usually you can see where these things will go) but very satisfying.
2 comments on "The Keep"
  1. Sounds like a good read. I hope you spent time out of doors today. Quite lovely, yet my allergies do keep me from enjoying it completely. Damn nostrils and such.

  2. It IS a good read. You should treat yourself and read it on your next break from school. I did spend time outside today and it was indeed quite lovely. I'm lucky that my allergies are not that bad -- but I feel for all of you sufferers. There's an insane amount of pollen out right now. Aren't the bees supposed to be making honey out of it or something??


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