The best traps are positively delightful, filled with that which we desire
prominently displayed so that we will not hesitate. But once we have
taken the bait the hooks are set, and the trap displays its true
nature. What was once a catch is now a cage. What was once a simple
story is now a complex lie.
Jennifer Egan's 'The Keep' is a trap, a snare that draws the reader in
with elegant, transparent language. It seems a simple story. Danny's
at the end of his rope. He comes to the castle being renovated by his
once-nerdly, now-rich cousin Howard to help fix things up. Danny is going
to give himself some breathing space between his life of lies in New
York and the new lies he'll here in the wild mountains of Europe. He
is everyone's quintessentially unreliable relative. The words that create
him unfold with glowing reading ease. Until they lie. Until the fragile
reality that we build as we read comes into question. Every reader lies
to create the worlds within which they experience stories. But when a
lie is created from lies, our surrogate reality is no longer the safe
escape of reading. It is something far more unsettling, far more surreal.
It is possible we have gone mad. More frightening still, it is possible
that we are entirely sane, but just learning about the world in a manner
both informative and ultimately, existentially terrifying.
'The Keep' is a very smart novel that uses its smarts to shock and entertain
its readers. It works easily on so many levels that it provides readers
with a wonderfully complex reading experience that does not require a
lot of reading effort. Within her twisty little narrative, Egan deploys
the tropes of crime fiction, horror fiction, surreal fiction and even
science fiction in a manner that lies firmly outside of all genres. For
all the craft that goes into this novel, for all the delightful depths
that it plumbs, readers never encounter anything particularly out of
the ordinary. But Egan is a master at tweaking the ordinary until it
becomes far more entertaining, frightening and surreal than it has any
right to be.
Like many cleverly written novels, 'The Keep' benefits from a reader's
ignorance and it rewards a reviewer's perspicacity with ample opportunities
to demonstrate just how much there is to get. Suffice it to say that
Egan's narrative takes a turn for the decidedly weird early on, in a
manner that is both crystal clear and yet engagingly mysterious. Once
she gets readers going down the rabbit hole there is no going back, and
what seems like a fairly simple post-millennium gothic becomes a postmodern
nightmare. Yet like the best nightmares, Egan's work speaks on a primal
level, scaring the bejeebers out of readers with its rug-pulls and plot
twists, with percipients proved false and presumptions proved true. The
bare facts of reality, made unpleasantly present.
'The Keep' is first and foremost fun and easy to read. Egan's prose is
breathlessly pure, stripped down to communicate in sparest form the densest
datum. Punctuation, prose, everything, every word, every bit of ink on
the page exists only as a conduit to take the reader into that place
where life outside the book ceases to impinge upon your consciousness.
This is a book that would serve equally well were one to teach it to
high school freshman or Flying Dutchmen post-docs trapped in an endless
parade of PhD theses. It's easy to read, easy to "get" and
yet it rewards hours of complex contemplation.
As a work that slots well into various forms of genre fiction, 'The Keep'
will potentially appeal to readers of science fiction, horror and crime
fiction. While there is no futuristic gadgetry in it, the surreal perceptions
it engenders are consonant with the best works of cyberpunk. Egan reverse
engineers the usual science fiction inventions here, looking backwards
instead of forwards with some enjoyably witty observations about the
nature of reality and religious reality. As a horror novel, Egan provides
the pure terror of mental illness and evokes within the reader as you
read the fear that madness may have descended upon you as a result of
reading itself. Since the novel is at least in part an authentic if spare
gothic, she also provides some of the supernatural effects we expect
to find within examples of that genre, undermining reality. And finally,
the most harrowing elements rise from the world of crime fiction. Her
straightforward no-frills presentation makes brutality seem real and
in-your-face without edging into the egregious.
Handling multiple genres and story lines with ineffable ease, Egan most
of all makes her very complex and clever core concept seem effortless
and natural. There's a joyous sense of discovery that awaits readers
of 'The Keep'. It's the thrill of finding out that there is no single,
simple, straightforward reality that we can impale with specimen pins.
There are however lots of pins. And there is lots of stuff to impale.