Turn­ing the screw

The Keep By Jen­nifer Egan Aba­cus, 242pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

IF you judge a book by its cover, you’ll miss out. The Keep ’ s black and white, Hal­loween- script jacket looks tacky, a missed op­por­tu­nity for some­thing that should have sucked you in, like the dark, en­gulf­ing story inside. The book in­volves the usual com­pul­sions of the gothic, with its rich psy­cho­log­i­cal quag­mire: a moul­der­ing an­ces­tral pile, twin ghosts, buried crimes and fes­ter­ing guilt. Jen­nifer Egan, how­ever, is smart and turns a 21st- cen­tury screw on the genre.

This is Egan’s third novel and it’s touted as ‘‘ the sur­prise best­seller of 2006 in the US’’. Her par­tic­u­lar fo­cus is the para­noid fron­tiers of the mav­er­ick male psy­che. Ray, a US prison in­mate, is tak­ing a creative writ­ing class and telling the story. Though he is more switched- on in this re­gard than your av­er­age crim, Egan al­lows his raw, un­let­tered voice to carry the tale, in­clud­ing some clunky, ef­fort­ful asides. With no pre­vi­ous ex­po­sure to the cir­cuit- break­ing con­ven­tions of lit­er­a­ture, Ray’s au­di­ence, his men­ac­ing, sub­so­cial class­mates, in­habit a slightly lu­natic zone. The stakes are too high; sto­ry­telling plays with their heads. Ray gets stabbed be­cause one of them takes it all too se­ri­ously.

As in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw , part of the chilly thrill of the book lies in that fo­cus on sto­ry­telling, the way it can open doors in your head that are bet­ter left shut. Egan was at­tracted to this hack­neyed genre be­cause of the in­nate power it has to res­ur­rect the imag­i­na­tion, smoth­ered as it is by the ubiq­ui­tous elec­tronic cov­er­age of con­tem­po­rary life.

Ray’s story is about Danny, a 36- year- old New York hus­tler on the run. Poor Danny is ad­dicted to the wired new world of con­tin­u­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion ex­change. It makes him feel pow­er­ful, in con­trol, real and safe. Egan re­moves Danny from New York to the un­net­worked back­blocks of east­ern Europe, and all his night­mares come alive.

Danny has a cousin, Howard. The Keep kicks off with a long- ago act of child­ish sadism. Howard is a fat, awk­ward boy, but his sav­ing grace is an imag­i­na­tion of me­dieval po­tency. Danny is ‘‘ sucha­good­boy’’, driven to im­press and curry favour. Want­ing to look good in front of his mates, Danny tips Howard into a freez­ing, un­der­ground lake and leaves him to die be­cause he can’t own up to it. Howard sur­vives.

Now they are all grown up and the ta­bles are turn­ing. Howard is rich, toned and suc­cess­ful. He hears of the hash Danny has made of his life and coolly in­vites him to join his latest in­vest­ment, an iso­lated cas­tle to be de­vel­oped into a lux­ury re­sort. What fol­lows is a com­pelling, fright­en­ing jour­ney away from the known ( the US) into the un­known. For many or­di­nary Amer­i­cans, it seems, a trip to deep­est Europe is too eas­ily an awe­some one- way ticket to para­noia, su­per­sti­tion and muck.

Young gun film­maker and Quentin Tar­enti­noen­dorsed Eli Roth knows this and is ea­ger to gorge their un­dead imag­i­na­tions on his latest bank­able slew of screen car­nage, Hos­tel II , which is set in re­motest Slo­vakia.

Tor­ture and dun­geon death are part of Egan’s hor­rorscape, too, but luck­ily she is ca­pa­ble of a less psy­chotic treat­ment.

Howard’s fortress, lo­cated in an in­de­ter­mi­nate spot, has one nicely ren­o­vated bit. The rest is a rot­ting hell­hole of rub­bish and cor­po­real de­cay, sed­i­mented through reaches of his­tory so ex­ten­sive they blow Danny’s al­ready half- blown mind. The cas­tle is an­i­mate with the most vi­cious, un­hal­lowed vibes imag­in­able and even fea­tures its own ter­ri­fy­ingly aged nympho­ma­niac. All this nas­ti­ness co­ag­u­lates in a foul, sym­bol- sod­den stew of a pool that Edgar Al­lan Poe would have rel­ished ( think The Fall of the House of Usher ). This fetid out­post is the site of pay­back and re­demp­tion.

Af­ter en­try into the charis­matic Howard’s or­bit, Danny’s ex­pe­ri­ence is treach­er­ous, os­cil­lat­ing be­tween real and un­real. Egan leads us down into ex­cru­ci­at­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic, sub­ter­ranean spa­ces. Is Howard out to get Danny or not? Who has the power? It is riv­et­ing un­til the end, where it goes soft and fluffy, like the cash­mere sweaters of Howard’s ho­tel guests.

When Ray’s story is fin­ished and the Ham­mer House party is over, the ren­o­va­tions, we re­alise, have pro­gressed. The cas­tle is newworld san­i­tary and his­tory is con­sumer­wrapped. It is spotlit and mar­keted as an elec­tron­ics- free zone where clients can find out if they have any depth. Howard has achieved his key per­for­mance indicators, his pro­jected vi­sion of a bou­tique sanc­tu­ary for af­flu­ent, freefall trav­ellers sick to death of the pre­dictable tex­ture of US priv­i­lege.

Ul­ti­mately, the tack­i­est thing in the book is the vanilla- scented how- to in­struc­tions meted out to cas­tle vis­i­tors with their bathrobes. So, Jen­nifer, is it all just per­verse, high- end ther­apy for Amer­ica’s jaded elite? Stella Clarke is a Can­berra lit­er­ary critic and has taught ex­ten­sively in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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