The Keep

By: Jennifer Egan
Published by: Knopf, 2006

You're following the story of a wired New York hipster stuck in a medieval castle in "mittel Europe." He's visiting a cousin he tried to kill years ago by shutting him up in a cave. The cousin is now disgustingly wealthy, and the hipster is pretty much a loser. The cousin (Howie) is going to turn the castle into a new-agey, get away from it all kind of hotel, if he can just get rid of the weird, ancient countess and finalize the renovations. And Danny (the hipster) is there to help, in some unexplained way.

Wait. You're actually following the story of Ray, the prison lifer who is writing about the New York hipster. The prison lifer is trying to impress his teacher, who doesn't seem to have much time for him. He's a hard case, but he is working doggedly to do something to make this woman look at him with a little respect.

Nope, hang on, the whole thing has really been the truth, and the story that matters is the one about the Holly, the teacher, who is actually a sad case herself, an ex-junkie, married to an active user, mother of three (only two living, one was born a meth addict). And this teacher has actually fallen for the con.

And there's more: the goings-on at the castle are more than a little spooky: the impenetrable keep, beneath which tangle dark, unmapped tunnels; the haunted swimming pool where two little children mysteriously drowned; the withered countess who is as old as the castle, but somehow can appear young and lithe and untouched by time.

Jennifer Egan has created a story within a story within a story - each one a little more distressing than the one wrapped around it, like weeping matrioshka dolls. She deliberately adopts an unschooled voice for Ray's story about Danny (Ray, the inmate, writes about Danny, the murderous cousin)that changes slightly but subtly when Ray tells his own story about his prison life and his attempts to write. Finally, the voice shifts to the sad, anxious, but more polished delivery of Holly, looking for redemption inside a prison classroom.

The mood as well as the characters all ring true, even up against the slightly supernatural backdrop, and Egan paints with the oddly chosen colors of those not quite in touch with reality, whether due to drugs, blows to the head, stabbings or gunshot wounds. The odd juxtaposition of Danny's passion for all things telecommunications-related (he seems to detect WiFi with his very bones, and craves a cell phone the way his creator's teacher still craves meth)only makes the drugged quality of much of the action all the more pronounced. Finishing the book is a bit like sobering up after an afternoon spent sipping wine on the beach. You had no idea just how tipsy you'd become.


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