Books October 2006

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If, like your reviewer, you are inclined to regard traditional Gothic tropes as silly—who, past boneheaded adolescence, gives a hoot about haunted houses and antics by candlelight? why bother with a Schauerroman (literally, “shudder novel”) when The New York Times is available?—you may be inclined to skip Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, which involves secret passages, dungeons, precipices, a mysterious damsel in a tower, and an ancient Schloss somewhere near the junction of Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. You would, however, be making a mistake: Egan’s third novel, The Keep (her second, Look At Me, was a well-deserved National Book Award finalist) is a strange, clever, and always compelling meditation on the relationship between the imagination and the captivities (psychological, metaphysical, and even physical) of modern life.

book cover

The Keep

by Jennifer Egan
Knopf

In this case, the Gothic yarn is a novel-within-the-novel. Its author is Ray, a convict of unspecified criminality, and his story concerns two American cousins in their thirties who reunite for the first time since a horrifying incident in their teens (cave, pool, near-drowning) to jointly renovate a castle in Mitteleuropa. As one disorienting incident follows another and the folkloric nightmares of childhood assume, for the cousins, a horribly incarcerating reality, we begin to wonder about Ray’s real connection to the events of his suspiciously well-observed tale—and, indeed, about his connection to his creative-writing teacher at the prison, a woman who, in a third layer of narrative, is herself revealed as an inmate of circumstance. Expertly stacking and unstacking and, in the end, ingeniously discarding the Russian dolls of her protagonists’ worlds, Egan, in clear and often witty prose, spins a tale of old-fashioned grip that argues for the liberating effects of fantasy and, not unrelatedly, for the enduring significance of the shudder.

Joseph O’Neill is writing his third novel, The Brooklyn Dream Game.
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