One never knows exactly who the main character is in Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, The Keep. In this onion of a novel, the reader keeps peeling back layer after layer to reveal and even more intriguing and engrossing plot without ever being sure which of the thee main characters is speaking, or which, even is real.
The book begins with Danny, an aimless thirty-something New Yorker, arriving late one night at an Eastern European Gothic castle where his cousin Howard has summoned him to help convert the castle into a hotel. It is soon revealed that Howard and Danny share a traumatic childhood event which may, or may not, factor into Howard’s reasons for inviting Danny to the castle. It is also soon revealed that this entire story is being told by Ray, an inmate at a maximum security New York State prison taking a writing class in order to get away from his oppressively insane cellmate.
Here are all the tropes of a modern thriller: an ancient castle, ghoulish legends of murdered twins, instruments of torture, an evil baroness locked up in a tower, a troubled childhood secret, and an imprisoned murderer. And yet, as the story progresses, none of these potential points of conflict is revealed to be the one on which the plot turns: none is the dark secret it seemed at first to be.
One has to respect Egan for presenting the reader with such potentially lucrative plot points and then choosing to let them lie. They serve the essential purpose of drawing the reader into the story and driving the plot at a relentless pace, and yet Egan somehow maintains a self- conscious awareness of her own manipulations without allowing the plot to falter. The story that is being told here is not about Danny, or Howard, or Ray, or the ancient castle and the murdered twins. The story is about imagination as a path towards healing and escape. It is about the power of fiction to both imprison and set free.
Egan has crafted a world in which all of the characters are imprisoned in one way or another (if not in a physical jail or labyrinth or keep, then in various mental squirrel cages, including addiction), but she has also given us the key: a world in which magical thinking actually works.