Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I read Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad back in 2011. I don’t remember it well, though I intend to revisit it soon. I love books that are oddly structured or that consist of stories that can stand on their own but when put together add up to more. I usually think of such story suites as a science fiction trope, but given books like Winesburg Ohio, Dubliners or Nazi Literature in the Americas (or on a larger scale 2666) there’s a lot of precedent for it in mainstream fiction as well. What I do remember about Goon Squad was that it worked wonderfully as a connected sequence. That metafictional impulse is on display in The Keep as well, and I’m glad that I’ve finally returned to Egan’s work.

The story begins as a pastiche of a gothic family melodrama/horror story. And it works incredibly well as that. For a while there were tics about the narrative voice that bugged me, but eventually I realized what was happening and came to love it. The gothic tale is being written by a prisoner, named Ray, who is in a prison writing group. If this were set in an MFA workshop, I think I would have rolled my eyes at that point, but the fact that the narrator is in a group of people at least one of whom is a legitimate threat to his safety adds stakes that make that part of the story compelling. The final section is narrated by the woman who is leading the workshop in the prison. 

Gene Wolfe once said something to the effect that the narrative voice should match that of the story, and Egan did that masterfully here. You believe that Ray wrote both the gothic novel and the prison one. There was a bit in there about hatred of adverbs that brought Elmore Leonard to mind, though the writing style isn’t as pared down as his. I read in a review (maybe on that one reviewer appreciated the way Egan was able to bring an emotional weight to metafiction that is often lost in the ironic distance a writer risks in the use of such techniques. I couldn’t agree more (though I think more writers than just Egan and Vollmann can pull this off, though they certainly do. I suspect the reviewer hadn’t read genre masters like Jeff Vandermeer or Caitlin Kiernan etc who accomplish that feat regularly). This was metafiction as compelling page turner with emotional weight. For all the textual tricks it never disappears into too-clever-by-half navel gazing. It’s also smart/prescient (set in a time of blackberries, not smartphones and radar dishes not 5G networks) about how people get addicted to their constant connection with an illusory digital world. The importance of silence, imagination and how the latter is hard to foster without the other is a major theme. 

This is an excellent book and I look forward to reading more by her and to that revisit of Goon Squad.

Highly Recommended (though a reread could bump it up to Canon Worthy)

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