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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 26th, 2006
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The Keep: A Novel

by Jennifer Egan

Night Shudders

A review by Joseph O?Neill

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 Eganís 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: Eganís 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.

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 Rayís 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 protagonistsí 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.


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