Cave dwelling

Jennifer Egan’s goth/po-mo gamble
By SHARON STEEL  |  September 26, 2006

060929_egan_main
HIPSTERS AND HOBGOBLINS: “I think a book should be complicated,” Egan says of The Keep.
When Jennifer Egan set out to draft The Keep, she had to pretend she wasn’t the person holding the pen. “I found myself writing the sentence, ‘I’m trying to write a novel,’ but not as myself — as someone else,’ ” she says. From there, the decision to make the trappings of a classic gothic novel collide with prose that is the literary equivalent of pop-art came instinctively.

It’s not as if Egan were possessed by a moody phantom who scribbled on bits of paper while she left the room. But she does channel one of her characters as a pseudo-author, lending a supernatural framework to her writing process that echoes the metafictional maze constructed in her latest novel, The Keep. Egan lays out the book’s blueprint in the first chapter, beginning with the question, Who is telling this story? Is it Danny King, a hyper-connected, tele-communications addict, who has just arrived at a medieval castle in Eastern Europe at the request of a cousin he hasn’t seen in years? Or is it Ray, a prisoner locked up in a maximum-security jail, interrupting Danny’s thoughts to introduce himself and remark, “Someone’s always doing the talking, just a lot of times you don’t know who it is or what their reasons are.”

Whatever the narrators’ motives, the book opens by unfurling Danny’s past: he isn’t the suburban “suchagoodboy” he embodied during adolescence. That boy peaked early, leaving Danny to alter his mold and morph into a thirtysomething social mover and shaker — the type of person who reinvents his look every few years (at the moment, he wears black lipstick and industrial boots). “All he knew was that he lived more or less in a constant state of expecting something any day, any hour, that would change everything, knock the world upside down and put Danny’s whole life into perspective as a story of complete success, because every twist and turn and snag and fuckup would always have been leading back to this.” Underneath his hipster threads, robbed of his social network, Danny’s self-esteem is a shriveled mess. He’s passed his adult life as a drifter, feeling most at home when he’s nowhere in particular, waiting for a metaphorical push that will change him forever.

Danny’s initial transformation can be traced to a single act of childhood malice. As a teenager, he abandoned his eccentric, adopted cousin Howie in a cave during a family camp-out, leaving him lost for several days. As a result, Howie is irrevocably damaged, though he, too, grows up and tweaks his image. A dorky Dungeons & Dragons fanatic, Howie transforms himself into Howard, a handsome, high-powered bond trader. Using his bankroll to purchase the castle, he moves there with his small family and a group of grad students.

Danny, searching for an excuse to leave New York City, accepts a one-way ticket in order to help renovate the castle, which his cousin wants to turn into an experimental, opulent hotel that cuts people off from contemporary society and forces them to dig up some ancient magic — a role-playing game happening in real-time. Howard is certain that his imagination, the one thing that saved him in the caves, has the potential to save others. “I made things up,” he tells Danny. “I had a life in my head that had nothing to do with my life. . . . My mission is to bring some of that back.”

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