The Very Model of a Major Modern Gothic: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

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Meta-novels are my favorite. I think it’s just that I love layers: be it trifle or lasagna or tree rings or Hawaiian shirts over tank tops, long, onion-y conversations with people who are willing to open up and reveal hidden pasts—I like having to work for fun.

Which is why Jennifer Egan’s 2006 quasi-neo-gothic The Keep is the perfect October book for me. There are sections that are creepy, a few that are genuinely terrifying, but it’s all wrapped in a narrative that plays with the conventions of the gothic novel and the ghost story.

Because this book is, in some ways, a puzzle box, I’m going to keep it spoiler free for a couple paragraphs, then dig into the book a bit more. I’ll warn you when I’m going to give stuff away.

The Keep was Jennifer Egan’s fourth book. In 2011, she won the Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad, an extraordinary series of linked stories that are more or less about music and death, that carry the readers from a punky near-past to an increasingly accurate, somewhat terrifying near future. If you know the book, you may have heard of “the Powerpoint story”—a small masterpiece in which Egan tells an emotionally gut-wrenching story via a Powerpoint presentation. I love that story, and burn with jealousy whenever I think of it.

The Keep seems at first like kind of a left turn into genre. Danny, a very particular type of New Yorker, comes to an unspecified European country to help his rich cousin, Howie, renovate a castle. The two of them have A Past, the castle is very weird and creepy, the postmarks on the invitation and his one-way plane ticket are blurry enough that he literally has no idea where he is. The only part of the castle they can’t renovate is the titular Keep—because that’s where the ninety-something-years-old baroness lives, refusing to come out and insisting that this has been her family’s land for nine centuries, and these clumsy American babies have no right to it. Between this, and the more ghostly stuff that begins to happen, Danny starts to feel like he’s stumbled out of reality and into a nightmare.

One of Egan’s fun twists on the Gothic is that the owner of the castle, Howie, is a former D&D nerd who is actively courting the supernatural. He wants to ban any sort of TV or phone contact, to recreate the kind of pre-Industrial life where people used to see ghosts and angels and “Christ came to dinner” as he says multiple times. He and his wife are especially obsessed with the pool—they want it to serve as a sort of spiritual heart where guests can cleanse themselves and replenish. And the fact that the previous owners’ twin children died there just adds to the atmosphere. But I can’t do justice to Egan’s ear for this type of person with mere description, so have a quote from Howie:

A reminder, folks. The whole mission of this hotel we’re putting together is to help people shed the real/unreal binary that’s become so meaningless now, with telecommunications yada yada. So this is our chance to walk the walk. Let’s not analyze. Let’s just have the experience and see where it takes us.

REAL/UNREAL. BINARY.

I have met so many of this dude, and I’ve wanted to throttle all of them.

Now when I say “particular kind of New Yorker”—Danny is very much an early-‘00s hipster. When he shows up at Howie’s castle, he’s fleeing a botched job as a restaurant promoter, dragging a Samsonite and carrying a small satellite dish, because the idea of having a hiccup in his cellphone service feels like a form of death to him. He’s wearing a velvet jacket and his slick, oft-resoled “lucky boots”. A note on those boots:

These were Danny’s lucky boots, the only boots he owned, although he’d shelled out enough repairing and resoling them over the years to buy five or six new pairs, easy He’d bought the boots right after he got to New York, when he’d just figured out who h was not (Danny King suchagoodboy) and was burning up with excitement to find out who he was instead. He’d come across the boots on Lower Broadway, he couldn’t remember what store, probably long gone by now. They were way beyond his price range, but those were the days when he could still count on his pop to fill in the gaps. The store had a big rubbery dance beat coming over the sound system, a beat Danny had been listening to ever since, for eighteen years, in stores, clubs, restaurants—he barely noticed it now. But that day in the shoestore, Danny felt like he’d tapped into the world’s secret pulse. He pulled the boots over his feet and stood in front of a long mirror, watching himself move to that bet, and got a sudden flash of how his life would be—his new life. Wild, mysterious. Danny gritted his teeth from excitement. He thought: I’m a guy who buys boots like this. It was the first thing he knew about himself.

Is this appropriate clothing for a massive building renovation? Nope! Do they very much define Danny’s sense of self, which is constructed from the outside in? Yep! Another thing about Danny is that some years before this adventure, something about his personality clicked for him:

Well, he’d lived a lot  of places since moving to New York: nice ones (when it was someone else’s place), and shitty ones (when it was his place), but none of them had ever felt like home. For a long time this bothered Danny, until one day two summers ago ago he was crossing Washington Square talking on his cell phone to his friend Zach, who was in Machu Picchu in the middle of a snowstorm, and it hit him—wham—that he was at home right at that instant. Not in Washington Square, where the usual crowd of tourists were yukking it up to some raunchy comedian in the empty fountain, not in Peru , where he’d never been in his life, but both places at once. Being somewhere but not completely: that was home for Danny, and it sure as hell was easier to land than a decent apartment.

He is a person defined by his liminality. He’s unmarried, and prefers to be if not single then at least casual. He hates kids, but defines himself in opposition to his “pop”. He’s not gay but willing to play bi if it’ll help him get club promotion gigs. He doesn’t go home because he’s tired of explaining himself to his aforementioned pop. He prefers being blurry. This is interesting because generally a Gothic novel is about people becoming blurry—about them losing their definitions of reality because of ghosts or gaslighting or the curse their new husband is under. What Egan does here is give us a very modern person, who already exists in the liminal state that most of us do, where we have an outside life, an online life, multiple personae that we juggle depending on who we’re with and which role we need to play at this moment. So what happens when that person is dropped in a reality where his class markers mean nothing, where his cellphone won’t work, where all of his knowledge about jostling for power and influence to climb his way through Manhattan is useless?

I guess this is the part where I should full disclosure, and say that I related to Danny maybe a little too much? That pre-pandemic Leah didn’t feel like themself unless they were in skinny jeans with their head dyed and half-shaved? That they only recently tossed their own pair of oft-resoled “lucky boots” that they bought in…wait for it…2006? And that reading this book in isolation, mid-pandemic (uh, hopefully) and knowing that they have no idea who they’ll be once this thing abates enough to be called “over”, that they don’t know what sort of rough beast they’re becoming as they wait to emerge? Or what sort of world they’re slouching into?

This was a more intense reading experience than I was expecting, is what I’m saying.

And while ymmv on a lot of the stuff I’ve just said, if you like Gothic fiction I think you’ll love this book. And now I’m going to spoil few things, so duck out if you want to go into this book cold.

 

This novel would already count as meta just from taking the tropes of the gothic and consciously putting them at war with modernity, but in addition to that, Egan adds a few more twists. Danny’s story isn’t being told to you by Egan, the author, it’s being told by a man named Ray, who is writing the story for the creative writing class he’s taking in prison. Ray is in a very different sort of modern Gothic, where he and the other inmates are trapped in the liminal world of a prison. Here the tower doesn’t contain dead exes or ghosts—it contains a sniper who will shoot anyone trying to escape. You’ren ot trying to break the curse over your husband, you’re humoring your cellmate, who believes a shoebox full of human hair is a radio that allows him to talk to the dead.

The amazing thing to me is that Egan made both sections fully immersive. (Danny’s was way more fun to read, obviously.) Ray is an excellent character for this because he is at one both very open and very guarded. He’ll pour hundreds of words into the reader’s ear about the connection he feels with Holly, the workshop leader, but when it comes to why he’s in prison? That door stays shut until very late in the book.

It’s an excellent twist to add this sort of interrogation of Gothic, where so many of the tropes can apply to the story of a modern prison. It’s also a fantastic twist when, a few pages into Danny’s story, it’s Ray who speaks directly to the reader, destabilizing the narrative, calling out the fact that it’s fiction, and adding another ghostly layer as we wonder who the hell is talking to us for part of a chapter, before Ray fully introduces himself. But better than all of that is that the prison sections are not just a gimmick. Egan creates a three-dimensional world, and a whole new cast, who are just as alive as everyone in Danny’s chapters.

Best of all, for me, was the portrait of a writing workshop. Reading aloud to the class, writing dumb, shocking scenes to get attention or get a laugh, inserting your writing instructor into your work to try to curry favor, having to sit in silence while everyone goes around and talks about this stuff that until recently was just in your head—it all made my squirm a lot. But here, too, Egan makes it clear that if you insult a peer’s work, or give them a bad review, you might end up on the wrong end of a shiv.

The last section of the novel leaves both stories to follow Holly, the writing instructor, into her world. In a perfect modernization of the usual wraparound construction, Ray has sent her his manuscript, and we’ve been reading some parts of it with her. But like everyone in this book, she has her own troubles: a meth habit lurking in her past, kids she’s desperately trying to stay straight for, a partner who has good stretches but can’t stay straight. In this world, receiving a meta-horror narrative about a possibly haunted castle isn’t an occasion to gather friends round the fire and enjoy an evening of spooky thrills, or even a sad moment to recall a tragic love affair—it’s evidence. And reading it might cost Holly her fragile life and family.

 

That’s it for spoilers! 

One of my favorite aspects of literature over the last 20-ish years is the way writers have become genre magpies. Looking back at the contemporary reviews for The Keep, some of the critics seem taken aback by the use of Gothic tropes in a way that I don’t think anyone would be now. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and I love thinking of it as one of the pebbles that created our current castle of literary mashups and genre-fluidity.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! Come join them in the crumbling, haunted castle that is Twitter!

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