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The Keepby Jennifer Egan
"If, like your reviewer, you are inclined to regard traditional Gothic tropes as silly...you may be inclined to skip Jennifer Egan's The Keep....You would, however, be making a mistake....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, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
From National Book Award finalist Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me ("Brilliantly unnerving...A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel" The New York Times), a spellbinding work of literary suspense enacted in a chilling psychological landscape — a dazzling tour de force.
Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story — a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle — that brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.
Egan's relentlessly gripping page-turner plays with rich forms — ghost story, love story, gothic — and transfixing themes: the undertow of history, the fate of imagination in the cacophony of modern life, the uncanny likeness between communications technology and the supernatural. In a narrative that shifts seamlessly from an ancient European castle to a maximum security prison, Egan conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep — the last stand, the final holdout, the place you run to when the walls are breached — is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.
A novel of fierce intelligence and velocity; a bravura performance from a writer of consummate skill and style.
"Claustrophobic paranoia, intentionally mediocre writing and a transparent gimmick dominate Egan's follow-up to Look at Me, centered on estranged cousins who reunite in Eastern Europe. Danny, a 36-year-old New York hipster who wears brown lipstick (and whose body can detect Wi-Fi availability), accepts his wealthy cousin Howard's invitation to come to Eastern Europe and help fix up the castle Howard plans on turning into a luxury Luddite hotel (check your cell at the door). In doing so, Danny can't help recalling the childhood prank he played on a young Howie that left the awkward adolescent nearly dead — or so writes Ray, the druggie inmate who's penning this novel-within-a-novel for his prison writing workshop. Subsequent chapters alternate between Danny's fantastical castle travails (it's home to a caustic baroness bent on preserving her family seat) and Ray's prison drama. There are funny asides and trappings (particularly digital technology) along the way, and the sendup of castle narratives generates some chuckles. But the connection between the two narratives, which Egan reveals in intentionally tawdry fashion, feels telegraphed from the first chapter, making for a frustrating read." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Ray Dobbs is a prison inmate who feels so trapped that he can measure his days in steps. In jail for murder, he's a loner who spends most of his time watching the 'murky gray shapes' moving past his small, opaque cell window. One day, Ray decides to take a writing class, ostensibly to avoid his strange and scheming cellmate. But his teacher, Holly, tells him that writing isn't just something to pass... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the time; it might be a means of escape. 'My job is to show you a door you can open,' Holly says. It's hard to imagine a canny, brooding smart aleck like Ray falling for such a line, but he does. Besides, he has a story to tell. And that story forms the bulk of Jennifer Egan's new novel, 'The Keep.' Ray's novel-within-this-novel begins with a character, Danny, searching unsuccessfully for a door. Danny's been invited by his wealthy cousin Howard to turn a crumbling Old World castle into a hotel, but when he arrives, he can't find the gate. Things have not been going well for Danny, a 36-year-old New York transplant: The scars on his body (a cigarette burn, a lump on his head made by a loan shark with a set of keys, a torn earlobe and so forth) map a topography of ill fortune and bad decisions. It hasn't always been this way. For the first 18 years of his life, Danny was 'suchagoodboy,' a good-looking soccer star with a girlfriend on the pom squad. Then he arrived in New York for college, threw away the polo shirts, pulled on a pair of hipster leather boots bought on lower Broadway and envisioned a new 'wild, mysterious' life driven by the 'secret pulse' of dance music. Instead, what he got was a series of failed business ventures, uncaring friends and loveless relationships. Now Danny's adrift — not a bad guy, but definitely a loser. As a young teenager, Danny did a horrible thing, and he's been haunted by it: He and an older, cooler cousin took their little cousin Howie into a cave and left him there to die. Howie — already an outsider, a fat kid too well versed in the rules of Dungeons & Dragons — emerged, but not unscathed: He began using drugs, tried to rob a 7-Eleven and was sent to reform school. Now, though, Howie has become Howard: tan, wealthy and cheerful. But he has cracks in his perfect veneer, created by marital tensions and a domineering leadership style. Neither man is a villain, neither a saint. What explains their crossing fortunes? Howard claims that he was saved by his imagination — that impregnable fortress inside him where he could confront and control his fears by transforming them into harmless spectacles. In the imagination, a man might find life to be haunted, even maddening, but he might also find himself and something worth living for in a soulless, mechanical world. 'Let people be tourists of their own imaginations,' he crows. Danny is suspicious — he's spent his whole life avoiding his own thoughts, to the point that he's lugged a satellite dish to Germany to ensure uninterrupted Internet and phone service. But when the dish breaks, in this strange land and without a lifeline to the outside world, Danny finds that he has no choice but to confront his insecurities and demons. Brushes with death teach familiar lessons: Appearances deceive, love is worth protecting and maybe, just maybe, redemption through the imagination is possible. Egan's premise — using a convicted murderer to tell a story about rehabilitation and the shifting fortunes of aggressors and victims — is bold. The problem is that Ray can't quite carry it off. In her previous novel, 'Look at Me,' Egan juggled plotlines and characters with a sharp voice and dazzling writing. Here, though, she has chosen the guise of an untrained writer, and it's a little too convincing. Ray's 'The Keep' is a haphazard string of tired, Gothic tropes and clumsy authorial asides ('There was no pause in Howard's talking, but I'm taking a pause here to tell you that Danny wasn't listening') leavened with a few instances of original language (the 'smoky bite' of fall air; a powerful presence 'like a towel snapping near his face'). The plot, too, is fairly predictable (a quickening of the imagination; a chance for Danny to redeem himself; the requisite climactic twist), though there are some funny and inventive moments along the way, notably a wild tryst between Danny and the ancient Baroness von Ausblinker, whose family owned the castle for nine centuries and who's locked herself in the keep to foil Howard's construction efforts. Still, what could be a startling exercise in empathy stumbles in the contrivance of using the writing style of Ray, an inexperienced, mediocre author. At the end of the book, Ray tells Holly that 'that stuff' he wrote is no good. She protests, saying that it's simply raw and unformed. Holly's right; it's not terrible. But Ray Dobbs is certainly no Jennifer Egan." Reviewed by Louisa Thomas, who is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Atmospheric and tense, this is a mesmerizing story." Booklist
"An engrossing narrative told in prose that's remarkably fresh and inventive." Library Journal
"Intelligent, challenging and exciting....The characters' emotions are so real, the author's insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"It's precisely Egan's talent for tapping into the American subconscious...that has established the author and journalist as a prescient literary voice." Vogue
"Egan is a very good writer, insightful and often funny, so fluid that you actually have the sensation of sinking into these lives." USA Today
"How [Egan] weaves the story of these four people together — and the unexpected links between them — is fascinating." Oregonian
"Overall, the improbability of The Keep is as bold as its realism is impassioned." Los Angeles Times
"[A] pleasure to read....Eagan's story unfolds in such sharp, realistically toned flashes that you get the information exactly the way her narrator wishes — without even knowing you were looking for it." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"While this ghost story wants to spook, instead it frustrates with a dual narrative arc that's unnecessary and pointless....
The author of Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist, returns with a brilliantly constructed work of intellectual suspense that takes on the lure of history, the cacophony of modern life, the power of the imagination, the meaning of escape, and the uncanny similarities between technology and the supernatural.
Award-winning author Jennifer Egan brilliantly conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep -the tower, the last stand -is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.
Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.
About the Author
Jennifer Egan is the author of Look at Me, which was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her nonfiction appears frequently in the New York Times Magazine. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
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