Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

November 20th, 2011 § 1 comment

Continuing the series of homely, off-the-cuff reactions to novels I’m reading in T.C. Boyle’s grad fiction workshop this semester…

I loved the description of Davis’ ghost radio on page 97. Reading it—and not instinctively interpreting it as artifice, fantastical conceit, metaphor—made me look up from The Keep and realize just how completely into its world I’d gotten, how utterly accustomed I’d become to the unique terms it sets for its own skewed reality. Our—my—impulse when confronted with fantastical contraptions is skepticism and a slight discomfort. It’s the reaction we expect and get from our guiding narrator, our mediator between novelistic reality and our own (in this case, Ray). How (seriously) are we meant to take something patently insane? Pile on the impossible events, inventions, and a tacit bargain gets struck, the entire story ascends, floating over incredulity on its way to allegory, and jettisoning some immediacy on the way. But that’s not the tack The Keep takes. Even Ray’s skepticism is somehow muted, and shades into a befuddled willingness, a cautious acceptance, the why-not? shrug of a man with nothing to lose. The thrilling part was that I was ready to take the ghost radio on similar terms—that is, at face value. If Davis claimed it was a ghost radio, who knew? Maybe it was. The novel had somehow prepared me for this: to accept the cockamamie as cold fact. But how? By fostering an atmosphere of uncertainty? Or, within this atmosphere of uncertainty, this narrative intangibility where anything might happen, maintaining a scrupulous, hard-nosed realism? Because if anything was true, it was that at page 97, I had little idea what would happen next.

Which is why I was a little disappointed when the pieces fell into place. It was as if some air had been let out of the tale. Essentially, the question “Who is Ray?” functions as a whodunit, and the answer, while not disappointing, or even surprising, did leave me a little less interested in goings-on. Answers, however necessary, are by definition never tantalizing. While Mick’s relative absence and lack of characterization in Ray’s manuscript cleverly sets him up to the narrator, I felt a twinge of lament that the conflict had been displaced from Danny-Howard to Danny-Mick/Ray. Arguably this very displacement is a mimicry and comment on how fiction gets made, but I liked Howard, and missed him.

As if in response to this mild disappointment, Egan gives us Part III. Here she explores the very interesting question: what do we do when fictions come true? How should we face, in life, a place we’ve only read about, one our imaginations have populated? Holly makes a pilgrimage to a place previously fictional to her, only to cathartically relinquish, once there, the expectations she had for it. This second change of narrator, this re-framing of the story, is consistent with her exploration of the purposes and genesis of fiction, though I am unwilling to put a finger too precisely on any one theory she might be advancing about these: exorcism, self-defense, escape.

The basis, I think, of Egan’s realism—what keeps it compelling—is a certain unflinching grimness, which the fleet, functional prose never sentimentalizes or even much dwells upon. Egan carefully and credibly distinguishes the three voices: Ray the writer, Ray the narrator, and Holly the narrator. The constant among these characters is desperation, but despite the Gothic trappings no fatalism palls the events. In the first chapter, the idea of an escape hatch is introduced, and that image persists through the novel. Grimness is pitted against doggedness, and desperation leads through the tunnel of paranoia to survival. There’s no room for shame or vanities in this world; characters are stripped of their pretensions, smuggled into the birthing dark, and then forced to push on. There’s a certain swagger, a steely grip, to the seemingly workmanlike prose, which gathers fierceness to it. It’s a neat trick, how Egan uses Ray’s uneducated veneer to bull through technical literary issues, making lists and forcing transitions. This reinforces her brand of realism, as if to say: style doesn’t matter, only content. I’m going to cut through the tinsel and garlands. The unvarnished always asserts a claim to honesty.

And yet the novel is predicated on a formal trick: perspectives slotting into one another like sections of a telescope, or contexts whisked out from under the reader as in a collapsing house of cards. Perhaps the novel, like Danny, longs to be in two places at once, and isn’t whole otherwise.

§ One Response to Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

  • Sofia says:

    I agree. There’s something breathtaking about those expectation-defying moments (the old woman’s kiss, Holly at the keep), but the structure of the book overwhelms with its drive to explain all the surprises. I loved The Keep while I was reading it, but now that I know the tricks I don’t think I’ll read it again.

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