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The Keep by Jennifer Egan
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The Keep (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Jennifer Egan

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1,418765,332 (3.4)123
Member:RavenousReaders
Title:The Keep
Authors:Jennifer Egan
Info:Anchor (2007), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:Pima County Public Library, pcpl, renovation, cousins, suspence, crime, staff pick

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The Keep by Jennifer Egan (2006)

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Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
I picked up Jennifer Egan's The Keep because, well, Halloween, and for its premise: three different stories told by three different narrators that intertwine for an unusual twist on the gothic tale. The Keep opens with a seemingly traditional gothic tale. Danny arrives at the doorstep of a castle somewhere in central Europe after a maddeningly long and confusing journey. He's tired and disoriented and before him, in all its glory, is a mysterious castle, heavy with atmosphere and history, something out of a fevered dream. Danny has a history of his own too, as it seems all protagonists do in gothic tales. He's an ex-con who bounced around a bit, and has recently gotten into the kind of trouble that involves busted kneecaps (he walks with a limp when we first meet him). When his cousin Howard calls him out of the blue and invites him to help with a castle renovation, dangling a one-way ticket, Danny is quickly on board. Serendipity or so it seems.

Now cue the organ music to highlight that something is amiss.

We learn that the relationship between Danny and Howard isn't so straightforward. A horrible childhood incident (recounted in flashback) has marred their lives forever, and you begin to suspect that Howard's motives might be more sinister. As the days go by, Danny's perceptions of the castle begin to darken. Egan gets a little heavy-handed with the foreshadowing when Howard reveals his renovation plans for the castle: to turn it into a new-age retreat for people to get in touch with their inner imaginations. Howard argues that TV and movies and other forms of passive entertainment have impoverished the mind, that we don't know how to tell ourselves stories anymore. Danny balks at this and then starts to become increasingly paranoid about his cousin's true intentions. Perhaps his cousin has brought him here to enact some revenge fantasy on him as payback for that long-ago but never forgotten, cruel childhood prank. Egan's brilliant, slow poison starts to take effect, and we see Danny start to unravel.

The fourth wall breaks early on with this line, so watch for it: "You? Who the hell are you? That’s what someone must be saying right about now. Well, I’m the guy talking. Someone’s always doing the talking, just a lot of times you don’t know who it is or what their reasons are. My teacher, Holly, told me that." The line comes like a slap right in the middle of Danny's narrative. The trespassing authorial presence seems to engage us directly, and suddenly the gothic creepiness dissolves into something more ominous. Who is telling this story?

Cue the second story. We find out that the first story is an account being written by another character, Ray. Ray is a convict in a max security prison doing time for murder. He's writing about Danny and Howard as part of a creative writing course. He claims the story is true, told to him by a friend, and yet it's obvious that Ray is more involved in the story's events than he's letting on. In this narrative, Egan mostly shows Ray growing more and more infatuated with this writing teacher, Holly.

In the third story, Holly becomes our narrator, and we learn how she's become emotionally involved with Ray and how the castle story about Danny and Howard connects them somehow. The connection is more emotional and psychological at first, and later becomes something much more real. Or so it seems.

I can't make up my mind about The Keep. On one hand, it's a mind-bending Mobius strip of a book; on the other, it feels gimmicky, and besides, other writers have done it and done it better. But I suspect there's something there meant to fool us, to make us dismiss it too quickly. (To show our flawed, impoverished imaginations perhaps?) On the whole, the book is a story about childhood demons that never quite go away, psychological traumas that come back and become real-world dangers. To her credit, Egan creates some genuinely horrifying moments. The scenes of Danny walking around the castle grounds; the dark pool of sludge he ponders; the keep with its strange occupant, a malevolent baroness who refuses to vacate the castle; the small town whose streets become a maze that Danny can't navigate; the claustrophobia-inducing underground tunnels—all nightmarish. But the way the book is structured—with its second story intruding early on—Egan robs the book of some of the psychological complexity it could be building up, and we never truly have the gothic aspects to ourselves. We're always made aware that it's *just* a story.

Though I now wonder...could this all be some kind of larger authorial trick? I started to suspect this by the time I got to the Holly story. OK, I thought, here's a book that has three strands woven together in a tight braid. There are twists and turns that are clever, though mostly obvious, and then Egan drops the narrative magic altogether by the time we get to Holly's story. At this point, I was feeling cheated, like the complex layers of narrative had all been too contrived and forced.

As I started thinking more about Holly, though, I began to develop other ideas. Egan is being very, very deliberate with Holly. Holly's narrative is supposed to be the 'real' part of the story, where all illusions drop away, where the veil is finally lifted. But I suspect that Egan is actually showing us the real 'gothic' story with Holly. *SPOILER AHEAD: In the last few pages, Holly decides to drop everything and visit the castle from Ray's story. She gets on a plane and make the journey, exactly as Danny does in the first story. I couldn't help but think she was entering her own fever dream. In fact, she desperately and irrationally hopes that Ray might be there so they can reunite. In one section, Holly even assumes the character of the baroness locked away in the keep. The book finally ends with a surreal scene with Holly stepping into the pool of imagination.*

The Keep is much more complex for its own good, much like the castle, and maybe even our imaginations, with all its impenetrable walls, unfathomable depths, and dark passageways. ( )
  gendeg | Oct 31, 2014 |
The NY Times advertised, "The result is a work both prodigiously entertaining and profoundly moving." Personally, I didn't find it entertaining regardless of the adverb in front of the word in the review and I definitely did not find this book 'profoundly moving'. If you have the time and add it to your reading list, I'll hope you'll let me know what you think when you're finished reading. ( )
  Corduroy7 | Aug 6, 2014 |
I bought this book because I loved [A Visit from the Goon Squad]. This book is much different from that one, but I enjoyed it almost as much. I was drawn in from the first chapter, in which we meet Danny and Howie, cousins who are good friends until Danny makes a decision with dangerous consequences for Howie. Years later, Howie (now known as Howard) is a successful businessman who invites Danny to help him renovate a castle into a hotel. Danny is down on his luck and grasps at the opportunity as a way to turn his life around. The atmosphere in the castle is dark and suspenseful, and the suspense is heightened by the fact that Danny doesn't always seem to be the most credible judge of other people. The pace of the story picks up, leaving me glad that I had a few hours this morning to plow through to the ending.

Egan is a wonderful story teller. She captures the nuances of relationships beautifully, and the atmosphere she creates in the castle is masterful. On its own this would have been enough for me. However, there are a few chapters sprinkled throughout that add another dimension to the book. In these chapters, a writing teacher from a community college is teaching a writing class at a prison. Gradually, the threads come together convincing me that Egan is no ordinary story teller, and that I must get my hands on everything else that she has written. ( )
  porch_reader | Mar 30, 2014 |
Out of money and options, Danny travels to an unnamed Eastern European country to join his cousin Howard in renovating a decrepit castle, where family secrets are dredged up in this story within a story.

The Keep is a strange book, and I’m still not sure how I felt about it. What drew me in was the gothic setting, which Egan’s prose brings to life. It is situated on a mountaintop overlooking a quaint, Old World village, and it contains a tower called the keep, inhabited by a crazy, ancient baroness who is the last of the family that originally owned the castle and who refuses to leave; a murky pool where twin children were said to have drowned, which may be inhabited by ghosts; and a maze of tunnels underneath that include a torture chamber complete with manacled skeletons. It all sounds a bit too much, but Egan is playing with us, as we soon discover. For Danny’s story is actually an assignment that a guy named Ray is writing for a class he is taking at the prison where he is incarcerated.

So what is real, and what isn’t real? Egan doesn’t tell us. Danny’s story gets more and more surreal, as he first falls out of a window and suffers a head injury, then tries to get away from the castle and fails. (By the way, why do these surreal journeys always take place in Central European locations? I believe this is the third novel I’ve read with that premise.) I did find Danny’s story and the castle more compelling than Ray’s story and the prison, and it is Danny’s story that keeps me reading.

At the end, I think Egan gives us enough information to formulate some answers. I won’t divulge my thinking, because that would be too spoiler-y, but for me, the ending was a bit too on the nose. Overall, though, I liked the book, and I was interested in what Egan was trying to do. She may not have completely pulled off the experimental aspects of the novel, but at least she was willing to play with the narrative structure, and for what it’s worth, she nailed the gothic nature of the story. She could have stuck to that, and this would have been a very entertaining book.

Read for the 2014 Geo Category Challenge (March 2014). ( )
  sturlington | Mar 30, 2014 |
A marvelous, magical novel - shifting and changing under you even as you read it. It isn't at all what you're expecting from the jacket copy, so just ignore it and dive in. You'll know how you feel about the novel by about page 15. For me, I found Egan's writing to be on a-whole-nother level from just about anybody else working today. This novel is different from Goon Squad and, from what I can tell, different from the other ones she's written as well.

I won't say too much other than "read it."

But if you want to hear more, I've got a lot more at RB: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-rL ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
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For the little boys, Manu and Raoul
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The castle was falling apart, but at 2 a.m. under a useless moon, Danny couldn't see this.
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Publisher Comments:
From National Book Award finalist Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me ("Brilliantly unnerving...A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel" The New York Times), a spellbinding work of literary suspense enacted in a chilling psychological landscape — a dazzling tour de force.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story — a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle — that brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

Egan's relentlessly gripping page-turner plays with rich forms — ghost story, love story, gothic — and transfixing themes: the undertow of history, the fate of imagination in the cacophony of modern life, the uncanny likeness between communications technology and the supernatural. In a narrative that shifts seamlessly from an ancient European castle to a maximum security prison, Egan conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep — the last stand, the final holdout, the place you run to when the walls are breached — is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.

A novel of fierce intelligence and velocity; a bravura performance from a writer of consummate skill and style.
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Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story--a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle--that brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.… (more)

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