The Keep: A Novel by Jennifer Egan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 272 pp)

Born in Chicago, Jennifer Egan spent her formative years in San Francisco. She majored in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, she accepted a fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Egan has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, became a feature film starring Cameron Diaz. Her latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award for Fiction, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction. Egan’s non-fiction has graced the pages of New York Times Magazine winning the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award and a 2009 NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn.

When Writing Doesn’t Connect

Very early during my second foray into the work of Jennifer Egan, the stark contrast of writing styles between books struck me. Having read A Visit from the Goon Squad, a delectably written collection-of-short-stories-to-make-a-narrative novel, I found myself surprised to see The Keep portraying drastically different style. From the words used to the format for quotations, Egan’s writing in The Keep is distinct.

The next question is: why? Is writing like acting where it is best to approach each role from a different angle, an altered method? Or should an author always provide a distinct voice no matter the subject of a narrative? As the plot of The Keep unfolded, the answer to Egan’s writing style becomes apparent.

Egan writes a novel within a novel.

The Danny Narrative

The principle narrative in The Keep surrounds Danny, a down-on-his-luck meanderer, who travels to Europe to help his cousin, Howard, renovate a castle into a hotel.

Howard and Danny have a complicated past. A fateful day when Danny abandoned Howard during a cave expedition has scarred the relationship. Nevertheless, Howard gives Danny a second chance with this job opportunity helping him fix the castle.

A technology addict, Danny is soon worried about the lack of connection in this remote place. Worry quickly sets into panic when Howard admits his big picture idea surrounding the castle.

“Howard: Think about medieval times, Danny, like when this castle was built. People were constantly seeing ghosts, having visions—they thought Christ was sitting with them at the dinner table, they thought angels and devils were flying around. We don’t see those things anymore. Why? Was all that stuff happening before and then it stopped? Unlikely. Was everyone nuts in medieval times? Doubtful. But their imaginations were more active. Their inner lives were rich and weird” (44).

Needless to say, Danny would rather connect to the Internet than connect to his imagination.

The Ray-Holly Narrative

On top of this principle narrative, the reader soon discovers that a convict has penned this castle story for a prison writing course. Ray, an inmate doing time for murder, has a crush on his teacher, Holly.

In his mind, impressing Holly through Danny’s story will be an avenue toward Holly’s heart. He’s seriously in love.

“So Holly goes slow past those flower beds and for a minute or two I’m just in awe of my good luck, happening to be in this spot right at the second when she walks through on an off day. What are the chances? It’s like being high, like I’m somewhere else, like whatever thing it was that started up in me all those weeks ago in Holly’s class was leading me to this: watching her walk up that path on a sunny day. I don’t know how to say it” (135).

The plot developments in the Danny narrative, to a certain extent, find influence from what occurs in Ray and Holly’s narrative.

The Answer to Dissimilar Prose

In this novel-within-a-novel set up, I find the answer to Egan’s dissimilar prose style. The writing in Danny’s narrative is simplistic and underdeveloped. For an inmate, the writing would be impeccable. But for a Pulitzer Prize winner, not so much. I am impressed with Egan’s ability to alter her style accordingly and her chapters discussing the Ray-Holly narrative still illustrate her skill. But, I could never get over the first setback.

The Keep lives and dies by its principle narrative—Danny and the castle. Even if Egan intended to write it in a simple form, the story itself doesn’t resonate. In comparison to A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Keep falls short. Look elsewhere!

Verdict: 2 out of 5

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