The Keep by Jennifer Egan
All great novels are about time. No matter what their overt content-- friendship, castles, death, or love (which all figure predominantly in The Keep)--time is the medium we swim through. In The Keep we’re awed by the passage of time as told through the voice of a prisoner. We sit down for about two and half hours and read about a few days in a castle somewhere in Europe that’s been there for hundreds of years and the journey of two cousins over twenty years. Egan executes this magic trick of compression and expansion with unique style. Her voice (the prisoner’s) is simple, straightforward, yet prone to moments of grandeur during which the prisoner, a writing student it turns out, is trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. One man, a rich and successful bond trader has invited the other, his cousin Danny an eighteen year veteran of Manhattan with little to show for it other than his uncanny ability to understand power and make himself the indispensable “second man,” to the castle for a non-specific project that may involve it’s renovation. Like time and life and its real stories that unfold, The Keep refuses to provide any definite answers to the purpose of the amorphous mission. Is it material, spiritual, historical? It involves a hoard of graduate students (undisclosed field of study) and an ideal, “second man” Mick, a dark and murky pool in which a pair of twins have drowned, an affair and a baroness who refuses to leave the property which her family has inhabited for centuries. The mission’s purpose is in fact tantamount to finding the meaning of the life. By refusing to set some details such as the country in which the story takes place, Egan seems to maintain that invention, possibility, atmosphere and illusion are not only the tools of the story but the essence of our experience in the world. When Danny glimpses the baroness, white-haired and shriveled, as a golden-maned, beauty, peering at him from a window of the keep (the tower fortress where the family went in case of invasion) she is in fact just that. Days after the last pages are turned we find ourselves drenched in her dream world, fantasizing about the ideal keep and more and more sure of the necessity of novels to guide us through the scarily shapeless thing that is time.