I Capture the Castle

Escape velocity: Rooms within rooms in Jennifer Egan's multilayered third novel

Kids get a rough go of it in Jennifer Egan's recent novels. In Look at Me (2001), her sweeping rip of '90s-style image culture, young Charlotte laments her plain looks and flat chest: " 'Boys don't like me,' she told the man. 'They'll grow up,' he said, 'and admire your eyes.' " Charlotte's brother Ricky, once stricken with leukemia, now finds himself too conspicuous in his good looks: "he was . . . beautiful in a way that unnerved people, made them gape at him in the supermarket." These troubles may be typical adolescent potholes, but they become consequential in a culture of looking.

Egan's new book, The Keep, details a more sinister tragedy. We learn early on that our protagonist, Danny, had, as a youngster, wandered off at a family picnic and pushed his trusting cousin Howie into a murky pool in a hidden cave, then ran off, shamefully leaving him to languish until his rescue three days on. It's a trauma whose depth and style will turn out to map the novel's basic amendments to Look at Me's cultural take.

The "keep" of the title ostensibly refers to the final stronghold in a medieval castle, which is where Danny is headed as the novel opens; he's come to the crumbly ruin on some side of Eastern Europe's slippery borders at the behest of his onetime victim. Howie is now Howard, a boundlessly successful capitalist who means to renovate the castle into a Luddite retreat for the wealthy. Penance aside, it would be an unlikely destination for Danny, who's grown into a devout urbanist defined by his beautiful, senseless footwear ("city boots, hipster boots, somewhere between square-tipped and pointy"). He's even got a quintessentially modern party trick: the ability to "feel on the surface of his skin when wireless was available." (The novel's riffs on the digital age are clunky and tacked on, but we get the idea.) Of course, it's also a strangely logical locale for our trendy quasi-hero: This sort of boutique retreat is both symptom and rebuttal of ritzy technoculture.

Egan: "I went into a game."
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
Egan: "I went into a game."

Details

The Keep
By Jennifer Egan
Knopf, $24, 236 pp.

Predictably, the "keep" figure extends well beyond the literal room in the castle. It turns out Danny's tale is actually being penned by a temperamental scribe named Ray, who is composing it for a prison writing class. For the incarcerated author, the fictional world is the obvious keep, his story a chance to invent doors without locks. Nor is Ray the only one who needs such a retreat. When Howard and Danny finally confront their painful history, Howard explains how he coped with his underground entrapment: "I escaped with my mind. I got out of there because I wasn't going to make it otherwise. . . . I left. I went into a game. Rooms in my head. We can all do it, you know—we're just out of practice."

Like Look at Me, The Keep is a book about bodies, a view of the zeitgeist shaped around the meaning of physical presence in culture. But while the earlier book is the one in which the narrator, a supermodel also named Charlotte, gets her face smashed to bits, the new novel is the one about wounds. Consider the opening sequence of Look at Me, in which Charlotte endures the car accident that will thoroughly alter—though not ruin—her appearance: "then a bright, splintering crack as I burst through the windshield into the open air, bloody and frightened and uncomprehending." The crash plays as an opportunity for rebirth (literally, according to each adjective) in a neo-Debordian society of the spectacle. By Egan's transparent but salient calculus, it breathes color back into Charlotte as it erases her famous face.

That implicit optimism didn't hold up: Look at Me ends in a disheartening lurch back into facade, with smarmy producers leaching the truth from Charlotte's accident as they mold her into an online brand. But what's significant is the perceived danger in each book. Then, it was the bloodlessness of image culture that was quietly lethal. The Keep updates its trip wires for a new political climate: Real pain is what hurts again, it suggests, and the bodies here protrude into the world, eminently vulnerable.

Toward the end of the novel, we meet our final author (Ray's writing teacher, Holly, who has been dutifully relating his story of writing his story), and watch her get caught with her husband's stash of meth. During the strip-search, she retreats into her mind: "At that point I sort of leave my body; I think, this isn't me." It's a painful moment that cuts both ways. Fictions are a final keep—a lesson Holly taught Ray, and one that's embedded in the novel's own self-escaping structure. And we're particularly primed for the appeal of well-told tales. Shifting to a narrator who's allowed to show skill, Egan's prose has finally opened into its natural cool canter. But pain or no, cocooning ourselves feels too costly. Maybe, like Charlotte, we still want to feel the blood in our bodies.

 
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