I bought this book in the summer of 2007, when I was working as a summer camp administrator. I bought a Mary Gaitskill novel on the same Barnes and Noble trip and then was a little bummed when I couldn’t get excited about either one of them. I remember sitting in a sushi restaurant and trying to decide which book to read first. I think I settled on the Gaitskill, although I don’t think I read more than two or three chapters of it before I gave up. That was a bit of a scattered summer. I was in the middle of a move from southern California to Connecticut, with a seven-week sojourn in Baltimore for camp. I drove from Idyllwild, California to Baltimore in three and a half days – I’m still not entirely sure how I managed that. In the fall I was going to be going back to teaching after three years as an administrator, and I entertained fantasies of getting my syllabi all prepped and ready to go during my down time. Didn’t happen. Every time I started doing anything even halfway productive, the phone rang and it was the proprietor of the cat hotel where my cat Emma was staying, calling to tell me that Emma had earned extra privileges because she had been catching mice.
It’s too bad that I wasn’t able to find any pleasure in The Keep that summer, but on the other hand, I was delighted to discover it on a shelf a few days ago and give it another try. This is a novel built around suspense, a novel in which the author deliberately refuses to give you all the information you need about the connections between characters and events. The resolution, then, is about understanding these connections. Sometimes I like to give away endings in my reviews – just because I can – but tonight I won’t. This is definitely the sort of book whose ending would be spoiled by – well – “spoilers,” and I’m feeling generous this evening.
The protagonist of this novel is Danny, who when the novel opens has just flown to Europe to help his cousin Howard renovate a castle. Danny hasn’t seen Howard in years, but when they were preteens Danny and another cousin led Howard (or Howie back then; I used to have a Dodge Dart named Howie) into a cave, shoved him into a pool of water inside the cave, and then ran away and left him there. Three days passed as all the adults searched for Howie, and neither Danny nor his older cousin said a word to indicate that they knew where he was. When Howie was finally found at the end of the third day, he was unconscious and nearly dead.
Danny has his own reasons for wanting to hide out in Europe, and in the early chapters of the novel we learn that Danny is a shady character of a different sort. He is addicted to technology and to the sense of being “connected” to other people. He claims to be able to “hear” wireless internet and is terrified by the silence he experiences in a place without wi-fi. In spite of the fact that he seems fairly impecunious, he rented a $1500 satellite phone and dish so he won’t have to lose the endless contact that he craves. He doesn’t really even seem to care who he is connected to, although he does have a girlfriend that he claims to miss. Danny is also a bit of a goth: bit by bit, in the middle of casual passages of description, action, or dialogue, we learn that Danny’s look includes generous doses of Johnson’s baby powder on his face, brown lipstick, shoulder-length straight brown hair, combat boots, and a wide variety of piercings. He also hates children – hates them.
Howard’s purpose in renovating the castle is to open a hotel dedicated to taking people away from all connections to the modern world. He chose a medieval castle specifically because the Middle Ages were a time characterized by real-world discomforts and suffering but also by a rich spiritual and imaginative life (in other words, this era was the polar opposite of our own). “My mission is to bring some of that back,” Howard tells Danny. “Let people be tourists of their own imaginations. And please don’t say, like Disneyland, because that’s the exact opposite of what I’m talking about” (48). This statement right here was enough to win me over. Anyone contemptuous of Mr. Disney and his creepy empire is okey-dokey with me. Elsewhere in the same scene Howard says, “And what about people in medieval times? They saw one shitty little town their whole lives, their kids caught a cold and dropped dead, they had three teeth left in their heads by the time they hit thirty. People had to do something to shake things up or they would have keeled over from misery and boredom. So Christ came to dinner. Witches and goblins were hiding in corners. People looked at the sky and saw angels” (48). This is awesome. I want to go to Europe and find Howard and beat his wife Ann in some kind of test of wills and live in the no-cell-phone castle forever.
Almost immediately after Danny sets up his satellite dish, he accidentally drops it in the pool – the pool that smells bad because two children died in it in the 19th century. Frantically, he scurries around the castle grounds, ending up in the Keep, where someone named Baroness Liesl von Ausblinker lives in complete isolation, believing herself the true owner of Howard’s castle and determined to pour hot oil on anyone who attempts to breach the Keep – determined, that is, until Danny visits her in the keep and she turns young and beautiful and they have sex. And after that, Danny falls out the window, loses his beloved combat boots, and sustains a severe concussion.
While all of this (and more!) is going on in Europe, back in the United States a creative writing class is being offered at a local prison. The instructor is a woman named Holly, and one of her students is a prisoner named Ray, who is working on a story that sounds an awful lot like the story of Danny and Howard at the castle. Bit by bit, we learn more about Ray and his cellmate Davis (who is not taking the writing class) and some more of his fellow prisoners as they read and respond to his story. And then we return to Europe, where bit by bit we learn about Howard’s assistant Mick, who seems to have had an affair with Howard’s wife Ann. The mysteries just keep on coming.
That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, though of course you can probably imagine that the parallels between the prison and the tower are plentiful: the Baroness in her Keep side by side with the sharpshooters in the prison watchtower, etc. This is the kind of novel where much of the excitement happens in the reader’s mind, as we try to anticipate how the characters are connected and how the many tensions will be resolved. We never entirely know whether Howard brought Danny to Europe in order to enact revenge for the long-ago incident in the cave: the novel ends in such a way that neither Danny nor the reader ever learns for sure.
This novel is 250 pages long and gets off to a bit of a slow start. From around page 40 until page 180 or so, I thought this book was one of the best I had read in a long time. I was dying to keep reading and find out how all the parts fit together. The quality of the novel flagged a bit after that, in my opinion. I never lost interest, but the ending didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It was like going out to get the mail and expecting books from Amazon but finding only, say, the J.Jill catalog. It could be much worse, of course: there could be bills or subpoenas or notices about back taxes or a letter from your bank informing you that due to a computer error all of your money is gone – just gone. Nothing terrible like that happens, and you do enjoy the J.Jill catalog, and if you hadn’t been expecting books you would have happily curled up on the couch with it and imagined yourself on some beach dressed all in linen.
But that’s just it– you were expecting books.
I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf since probably 2007 too. I’m interested in it all over again now. Thank you for putting Jennifer Egan back on my radar. 🙂