The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Anchor Books (Random House), 2005
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (for both of us)
The Keep is two stories nestled into each other. There’s the main story, which follows thirty-something-year-old Danny, who is visiting his cousin Howard in Germany to help him renovate an ancient castle. There’s an air of mystery around their relationship because they have a strange past, Danny having abandoned Howard in a cave when they were children. This whole story is being written by an inmate in a creative writing class, and his connection to the events of the story are unclear.
Pete: I went into this one coming off of my enthusiasm for A Visit From the Goon Squad, also by Egan, and I was surprised to enjoy this one even more. The first chapter introduces the unusual and complex premise quickly and comically. I was immediately grabbed.
Indiana: This is the first time I’ve read her, but she’s got one of the tightest writing styles I’ve ever read. It’s hard to believe that The Keep is less than 300 pages. She packs so much in that it feels like some sort of epic/meta story.
Pete: It’s strange to think that both of the two stories really only have five or six scenes each. But she packs a ton into those powerful scenes, and she creates characters that have complex and interesting relationships.
Indiana: Right, especially with Danny. He’s such an unusual and funny character. At some points it feels like he stepped out of a Dave Eggers book. He’s got this unfortunate life that started out promising but now that he’s in his 30s seems like it’s spiraling out of control. But he’s got a redeeming sense of humor that makes you sympathize with him.
Pete: You’re too kind to Danny . . . Danny is really dumb. He makes the worst choices, and it’s fun to watch him make these choices. He has redeeming qualities for sure, but his primary quality is that he has made bad choices his whole life, and now he feels pretty bummed out about that.
Indiana: Fair enough. He could definitely use a bit of help when it comes to making decisions . . . of any sort. But maybe that makes him a more interesting character to have operate in the strange microcosm that is the castle.
Pete: That’s true. I have a soft spot for books that take place in one small area, for some reason.
Indiana: Does that mean you really liked the scenery on the meta-side of the story? Where the writer of the story (we think) is living out his days in jail?
Pete: The setting in the jail wasn’t as interesting to me as it was in the castle, which is saying something because the prison creative writing class is an interesting choice of setting. Although I have to say the strength of the jail story came from its connection to the castle story. It added a layer of complexity that kept me wondering how both stories would end.
Indiana: Right, especially because we’re introduced to Danny’s story first and we become invested in it. We’re immediately asking what the hell he’s doing at this mysterious castle and wondering if he’s going to survive or if he’s found the world’s strangest cult. But then Egan rips us out of that world and makes it vulnerable by telling us that someone else is writing it. I sympathize with the intense inmate in the writing class who threatens to hurt the writer if he doesn’t finish the story.
Pete: Absolutely. But the jail scenes never dragged on too long, even though I was always itching to get back to Danny in the castle. Overall, I think it’s a story whose strength lies in its characters and their relationships, even though setting is such a major factor. I have to put this one a notch above A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I really loved that book.
Indiana: Well, I can’t say that just yet. But Egan will definitely be appearing on my future TBR lists.
Pete: Especially since her next novel, Manhattan Beach, comes out in October!