Going outside the daily categories to where reality, imagination meet

Review Novel


The Keep

Jennifer Egan

Alfred A. Knopf / 240 pages / $23.95

Often we're told that truth is stranger than fiction - so often that the claim begins to seem defensive, a whistling in the dark that distracts us from the unpredictable action of imagination. But the most absorbing and ambitious fiction proves that truth is not stranger than fiction. A powerful novel illuminates, through its inventions, the strangeness of truth. And a novel as daring as Jennifer Egan's The Keep makes us think hard about one of the murkiest mysteries of all: the mystery of perception, that uncertain border where reality and imagination meet.

Gothic fiction in particular tends to make this mystery central by mixing wild situations with what poet John Berryman called "impassioned realism." And The Keep has all the trappings of the gothic novel: a ruined castle, a tower (the "keep" of the title), tunnels, torture rooms and a creepy baroness. But Egan's novel also is full of conflicts involving cellphones, satellite dishes, scrambled eggs and jet lag. It's an inventive combination and irresistibly suspenseful.

Egan has distinguished herself as a writer whose prose is flexible, energetic and always to the point. In The Keep, even in those passages communicating a character's deep ambivalence, she has chosen words that are the simplest and yet the most suggestive. Howard and Danny are cousins and have a complicated history, their early years punctuated by a cruel trick played on Howard that resonates throughout the novel. Howard manages to prosper as an adult, buys an old castle in Eastern Europe and invites Danny to help him renovate it. Danny, who has nothing better to do, accepts the offer. But from his first entrance into the castle, everything goes wrong. He keeps stumbling, falling and making a fool of himself.

This is a subtly complex novel, with multiple narratives that mesh in fascinating ways. Danny wonders, and we wonder with him, whether he's losing his mind. He's suspicious about Howard's motives, and his suspicion develops into a powerful paranoia, "the worm," which burrows into him and inhabits his mind.

Egan is adept at building scenes that are strong enough in their implications to accommodate long interruptions. Early in the novel, she introduces another central character, Ray, who is seemingly unconnected to Danny and Howard. Ray is in jail, biding his time in whatever activity is permissible - in this case, a writing workshop.

Readers may well resist this turn in the novel. I admit that I was skeptical. Yet although this premise lands with a dull thud initially, Egan gives Ray a complex eloquence. He is a reluctant narrator, and his reluctance makes his story funny, spirited and increasingly moving. He is compelled to write because he has fallen in love with Holly, his workshop instructor; at a climactic moment, he succeeds in putting a collection of words to unexpected use, finding in his memory of language a beautifully cumulative understanding of his life:

"Then I lie on the floor because I'm tired and the words are starting to come up and I want to hear them, I want to catch them. I shut my eyes: redneck and juicehead and ... crapshoot and hothead, words floating around me like leaves coming off a tree, like I'm a kid lying on my back in the grass watching them come down: jive and joystick and jalopy and hollow and holy and Merry Christmas and Whose turn is it to put the star on the tree?"

In a novel full of unexpected shifts and interruptions, it's amazing how deftly Egan builds a logic for her characters. There's an inevitable quality to the mental associations each character makes, perhaps because so much is artfully connected in the end.

It's important for fiction to do more than illustrate where we are today, stuck inside our particular categories.

A novel like The Keep shows us what it's like to live outside of today's categories and to exist in unreal situations, in dreams, in confusion, in the experiences of others.

Joanna Scott's most recent novel is Liberation. She reviewed this novel for the Los Angeles Times.

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