The Keep

Jennifer Egan finds writers trapped within walls, and writers trapped within writers.

Jennifer Egan's Look at Me (2001) was a sweeping rip of '90s-style image culture. Her new book details a more sinister tragedy. We learn early in The Keep that our protagonist, Danny, had, as a youngster, pushed his trusting cousin Howie into a murky pool in a hidden cave, then ran off, shamefully leaving him to languish until his rescue three days on. The "keep" ostensibly refers to the final stronghold in a medieval castle, which is where Danny is headed as the novel opens; he's come to the crumbly ruin on some side of Eastern Europe's slippery borders at the behest of his onetime victim. Howie is now Howard, a boundlessly successful capitalist who means to renovate the castle into a Luddite retreat for the wealthy. Penance aside, it would be an unlikely destination for devout urbanist Danny, who's got a quintessentially modern party trick: the ability to "feel on the surface of his skin when wireless was available." But the "keep" figure goes beyond the room in the castle. It turns out Danny's tale is actually being penned for a prison writing class by a temperamental scribe named Ray. For the incarcerated author, the fictional world is the keep, his story a chance to invent doors without locks. Ray isn't the only one who needs such a retreat. When Howard and Danny finally confront their painful history, Howard explains how he coped with his underground entrapment: "I escaped with my mind. We can all do it, you know—we're just out of practice." Eventually we meet our final author (Ray's writing teacher, Holly, who has been dutifully relating his story of writing his story), and watch her get caught with her husband's meth. During the strip-search, she retreats into her mind: "At that point I sort of leave my body; I think, this isn't me." It's a painful moment that cuts both ways. Fictions are a final keep—a lesson Holly taught Ray, and one that's embedded in the novel's own self-escaping structure. And we're particularly primed for the appeal of well-told tales. Shifting to a narrator who's allowed to show skill, Egan's prose has finally opened into its natural cool canter. But pain or no, cocooning ourselves feels too costly. Maybe we still want to feel the blood in our bodies. THEO SCHELL-LAMBERT

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