Monday, December 5, 2011

Jennifer Egan's Genre-Bending Novel, "The Keep"

I’m an obsessive writer and an avid reader. And sometimes I come across a book that makes me think, “Damn, I wish I would have written that.” Jennifer Egan’s novel “The Keep” is one such book.

In an era when genre-bending has become a genre itself, Jennifer Egan does something truly new with this novel. Published in 2007, it’s unlike anything I've ever read, but at the same time it incorporates elements from a dozen different literary works.  

It starts off as a story about Danny and Howie, two young cousins. Howie is the messed-up adopted one and Danny is the good kid. At the outset, it seemed we were destined for a story of two teenagers. And, in a sense, that's what this novel is. But it's also many other things

When they're teenagers, Danny leaves Howie in a cave and Howie almost dies. It's so traumatic, it's referred to as “the incident.” From then on, Danny has serious guilt and Howie has serious anger.

But, hold on a second. Now we're twenty years in the future and we're somewhere in Eastern Europe. There's a castle with a mysterious “keep” and people with secrets. We're with Danny and Howie again, but we're in Kafka's territory now.

Wait a sec. All of the sudden, the narrator jumps out of the story and addresses the reader directly. He's in prison, and we're not sure why. He admits that “this is all some story some guy told me.” But is it? Of course not. Nothing is as it seems in “The Keep.”

This all happens before page 35. If you're not tripping by this point, you will be soon enough.

There’s a baroness of the castle who lives in the keep and says she’s descended from the people who built the castle 900 years ago. She looks young and beautiful from afar, but the closer Danny gets to her the uglier and older she gets. It's strange, but by no means the strangest thing in the novel. What exactly lies in this “keep” and why is this shape-shifting baroness guarding it?

As the castle story builds toward a powerful and unexpected climax, we learn more and more about this jailed narrator. These two elements compete with each other for the reader’s attention, but as the book moves forward, the two storylines run together in an ingenious fashion.

There’s an inherent risk in narrating from the perspective of someone with chaotic life circumstances, such as a convicted criminal. You’ve got to get the reader to believe the person who is narrating. In this case, our narrator is a man in prison for a terrible crime. His life is one of boredom, fights and more boredom. There are some times when Egan slips out of her prisoner narrator and throws in a phrase that sounds forced and fake, like: “his voice was butter melting in a pan,” and, one page later, “his voice is like a butterfly wing moving.” Still, these are few, and for the most part Egan’s prisoner narrator is believable. Egan is at her best when describing this prisoner’s attraction to a woman who comes into the prison to teach a writing class. Yes, there’s a love story element to this tale as well.

Description is lacking in some places. Egan has a great skill of describing people and places, but she doesn't use it much here. A lot of the scenes read like a screenplay. (And I'll admit it: I wondered for most of the book if she wrote this with a movie option in mind. Until the last fifty pages, when a plot turn makes me think this would be nearly impossible to film.) Egan's language is fast-paced, close-up and quick, creating an experience similar to the one I got while watching films like “Memento” and “Pulp Fiction.” This is not a book to read slowly. It almost needs to be read fast, because so much is going on, and the pace is so important, that to read it over the course of weeks would take away from that.

With whatever minor criticism I have for this book, I can not deny the reality that Egan is one of America's greatest living novelists. This is only the second novel by Egan I’ve read, the other being “Look at Me,” which was one of the best books I read in 2010. This is up there with the best of 2011. Next, I’ll move onto “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” a novel that earned Egan the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If it’s anything like her previous two novels, I’m sure the award is deserved.

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