Sunday, August 28, 2011

More Egan

Book Reviewed:  The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

After reading and admiring Jennifer Egan's award-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I decided it might be nice to read some of her other work.  Her previous book, The Keep, won a lot of critical acclaim when it hit shelves in 2006, and I thought the premise sounded especially promising.  Unfortunately, I think the book relies a little too heavily on the premise and lacks the depth of feeling involved in Good Squad as a whole. 

The Keep begins with thirty-something Danny arriving at a medieval-era castle somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Rootless and on the run, he's decided to go to the castle to help his cousin, Howie, turn it into an exclusive hotel.  As a teenager, Danny committed a cruel prank that separated him forever from Howie.  Now, as adults, they keep bumping into the past despite their attempts to avoid it at all cost.  These scenes at the castle are entrenched in gothic imagery and the supernatural.  There's a creepy and mystical old baroness who's trying to thwart the renovation.  There's a love triangle between Howie, his wife, and his assistant, Mick.  There's ghost stories and scary black pools and overly-idyllic villages. 

But this isn't the only story going on in this strange, meta novel.  We are told fairly quickly that the story of Danny and Howie is being told to us in first person by a prisoner taking a writing class.  This prisoner, Ray, has a crush on his teacher, Holly.  After the story of the castle and the story of the prison play out simultaneously in some unexpected ways, we get to see Holly's tragic backstory and get a glimpse at a world that might be more real than we imagined. 

This is a deeply weird book.  There's the layers of storytelling, layers that open the entire book up to themes of artifice and how we tell stories in order to comfort or absolve ourselves, with varying degrees of success.  As in the artful Good Squad, Egan does a nice job keeping all these plots up in the air.  Unfortunately, I had a hard time with this book.  I loved the first half, which seemed really inventive and had some amazing character and place details.  But I thought the second half dragged a bit, and I didn't care for the third section involving Holly at all.  The novel had been so careful in its earlier revelations that the last part just felt a little false to me in its confessional mode. 

When writers decide to tell different stories in a single book, there's always a risk that the reader will become so attached to one story that the others suffer in comparison. This is exactly what happened to me while reading The Keep.  I absolutely loved the castle stuff.  I dug the gothic influence and the creepiness factor of the castle itself.  And I thought the guilty, technology-obsessed Danny was the kind of bizarre and singular creation that only Egan could create.  But the parts involving Ray and Holly felt dull alongside this more interesting stuff.  I wanted the book to stay inside the world of Danny and Howie, and it didn't.  I felt like Egan set me up to be disappointed.  Needless to say, this is not a feeling I enjoy.

I thought The Keep was a cool book, and when I was into it, I was REALLY into it.  Unfortunately, it just couldn't hold my interest by the end.  Egan did such a great job stringing the disparate parts of the book together that she seemed to forget to ground the book in its best character bits.  It's fascinating to read this book and see the beginnings of the jumpy narrative style that would define A Visit from the Goon Squad.  It's even more interesting to see how much better Egan got in the four years between the two books. 

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