"The Keep," by Jennifer Egan, is entertaining popular fiction with a surprising literary twist. This novel contains three separate narratives, with three different narrators, yet each is artfully intertwined to create a satisfying whole--as a bonus, there is a thought-provoking thematic message...not something you typically find in popular fiction, and even less common in gothic thrillers! The prose is well done. It is difficult to juggle three narratives and three narrators, but I Egan has done an admirable job. I enjoyed this book not only for its intriguing structure and eerie story, but also because it kept me thinking about its theme long after I'd finished the last page...and, for me, that is often the mark of a good book.
The first narrative is a creepy modern gothic novel, complete with an ancient crumbling castle, a long-suppressed motive for revenge, a wicked old baroness who morphs into a young sexpot, ghostly apparitions, betrayals, obsessions, strange sounds, dark closed spaces, and dank smells. This narrative is told by Danny, a hip, ex-con, Generation-X, self-proclaimed cell phone junkie--a psychologically damaged survivor of a long string of failed attempts to make any kind of stable life. As the story opens, he has just arrived at a ruined castle near Prague owned by his multi-millionaire cousin Howard. Howard aims to turn the castle into a new-age psychological and spiritual retreat for people who want temporarily to take a vacation from the high-tech multi-media world and reacquaint themselves with their inner primitive imaginations. Howard has brought his cousin Danny over to the castle to help with the renovations...or is that just his cover story? The longer Danny stays in the castle away from any connection to the outside world, the greater his paranoia grows. Danny dwells on very real revenge motivations that his cousin might harbor against him for an extremely cruel childhood prank. Psychologically, Danny starts to unravel and the plot turns ominous.
The second narrative concerns the life of the author of the first narrative, a prisoner named Ray doing time for murder and writing a novel in installments as part of a behind-bars creative writing course. Ray says the castle story is something that a buddy told him, but we're never convinced of that...the story seems too real. Ultimately, the narrator's true identity in the story is revealed when Ray's full name is disclosed, but by that time we already suspect which character he is. Most of the prison narrative hinges on Ray's infatuation with his teacher, Holly--a woman who slowly starts to return his interest.
Holly is both the narrator and subject of the brief third and final section. Since the end of the second part already nicely concludes the previous two narratives, the reader expects this very short third section to serve as an epilogue. But Egan uses this section mainly to expand on her theme, not the narrative. I suspect that this will puzzle and disappoint popular fiction readers, who typically read a novel primarily for the story. Personally, I loved the ending. It highlighted the theme and brought it full-circle back to the beginning--that is, to the point early in the story where Howard and his wife describe how the round "Imagination Pool" might be used by future guests (see page 47).
So what is the theme of this unique gothic novel with a small literary twist? Actually it is quite serious. Egan aims to show that modern civilization robs its citizens of their imagination. Early in the novel, Danny's cousin Howard says: "We've lost the ability to make things up. We've farmed out that job to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us" (p. 45). What the author is telling us, is that modern culture, with its ubiquitous cell-phone-wifi-video-clip-television-film culture, has imprisoned people's imaginations--they have lost touch with their innate ability to imagine and create entertaining narratives out of everyday experience. If modern man is bored, he turns on the TV or drops out with drugs. If ancient man was bored, he created ghost and goblins, saw monsters and gods floating overhead in the patterns of clouds, and felt ecstasy simply by experiencing the beauty of the natural world. This theme reverberates throughout the novel and the lives of its three main characters, and since there are multiple narrators, we get to understand this effect from various viewpoints.
This work is primarily an entertaining story, a compelling creepy gothic thriller--the addition of a strong literary theme is a bonus, and as I said in the beginning, not something you often find in popular fiction. I suspect this is the primary reason why this novel has produced so many mixed reviews: it neither fully satisfies the popular fiction reader nor the literary reader, but it is a very good book.
My advice: enjoy the story, but take a little time to think about, and perhaps savor, the theme, if you do, it will heighten and prolong your enjoyment of the whole.