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Jennifer Egan
The Keep
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Alfred A Knopf / Borzoi / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-400-04392-1
240 Pages; $23.95
Publication Date: 08-01-2006
Date Reviewed: 12-05-06

Index: Mystery  General Fiction  Horror  Science Fiction

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.

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