Turning the screw
The Keep By Jennifer Egan Abacus, 242pp, $ 32.95
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.