Jennifer Egan is an American author who’s novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. She’s also written numerous short fiction, many which have had their debuts in “The New York Times Magazine” which supplements a impressive literary career garnered about her since her debut novel, “Look at me” (2001). “The Keep” was her fourth novel and even if it is one of her more “lesser known novels” (i.e. remains in the shadow of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”) it was highly praised by critics upon its release. Before I review “The Keep”, it seems fair to point out that I haven’t read any of Ms. Egan’s other literary works. Therefore this review will only be a critique of “The Keep”, but not on Ms. Egan’s body of work as a whole. In fact, I plan on reading “A Visit from the Good Squad” when I get my hands on a copy.
“The Keep” contains two parallel stories. One tells the story of Danny who is desperate for a job. So he agrees to work on a project with his cousin, Howard. Despite his desperation, Danny finds Howard suspicious and feels awkward around him, due to a deadly prank Danny played on Howard when the two of them were children. At the same time we follow a prisoner named Ray, who attends a writing course run at the prison. He becomes fairly infatuated with the teacher, Holly, and makes it his mission to have the frail contact of holding her hand (as he puts it: “in here it’s as good as fucking her”). As the story unfolds we find out that the narrative about Danny and Howard is the story Ray is writing for the course in prison. The climax of this interwoven tale is us finding out that Ray worked alongside Howard and Danny, and killed Danny by shooting him.
As a whole novel, “The Keep” has an interesting concept. Unfortunately it is poorly paced; half of the novel is just Danny walking about the construction site of the hotel he and Howard are working on, whilst emptily fretting about his vacant life. In sum, vacuously fussing about an unfilled existence (no wonder it is a problem). The incident from both Howards and Danny’s childhood is only mentioned in the novels beginning and then forgotten till the very end of the novel. And even then it turns out that the incident didn’t really have any relevance to these character’s actions and conclusions in the middle of the novel.
Ray’s story is modestly better written than the other protagonists of this tale. However, the novel’s incurable flaw is not that it is dull and longer than it should have been, but resides within the clumsy and annoying ending.
The final chapter is told entirely from Holly’s point of view. In it, the reader learns that Holly has two daughters, a teenager named Meg and a small child named Gabby. She has been to rehab due to having a severe addiction to Crystal meth, as did her husband, Terry, the father of the two girls. Holly describes how she started taking drugs alongside her husband since she was “tired of being the cop” and wanted to have fun. This event occurred while she had two very young girls to look after. Instead of being the parent the girls could depend on, she decided to emotionally abandon them in the thick of addiction. It is of course true that Terry suspended his own responsibilities as a parent by becoming a drug addict but this addiction of the father rings hollow as a distraction point for Holly’s participation in the family trauma and neglect of the children . Simply put the reader is asked to deal lightly with the mother Holly’s embrace of the spiral of addiction and to feel no compunction to lay the life of the kids to one dysfunctional parent instead of two.
Holly lays out to the reader the path of her addiction, which cumulates at one point with a miscarriage, yet we never find Holly even lightly reflecting on how traumatizing the circle of addiction, indifference and abuse may have been for her children. Instead we are placed in a narration focusing only on the psychological wounds Holly supposedly has from her own bad decisions. The character of Holly lightly skips over the destruction’s of her interactions with the dependent and circles in a field of guilt only regarding herself.
In the final chapter of the novel, Holly is informed that Ray (who one will remember was in Holly’s Writing Course at the prison) has escaped. Holly hurries home to inform Meg and Gabby that they all will have to sleep in Meg’s room for the evening. Meg complains about the lack of privacy and confronts her mother with the statement lingering always about the addict: “as if you can protect us”. This commotion sends the younger child Gabby into despairing tears, wherein Holly snaps at her daughter: “Look what you’ve done, you little bitch!”. Though we are told that Holly hates herself for saying such a thing to her daughter, the actuality, as always, is that this is an internal whimper (she thinks it, not says it) of the character whose very presence means rejecting any external apology or self-judgments when there are others who should “take the blame”. Served as well in this small set-scene, though Holly calls her teenage daughter by sexist terms reserved for the most mean-spirited and mad amongst us, the author actually serves up Holly as failing to see that her daughter’s comment is not entirely unjustifiable.
The mother has been an addict, and shown as not able, nor caring, for her children. And for this Meg’s anger isn’t without reason. That her mother then calls her by emotionally abusive, and sexually charged, names shows Holly has no real interest to face the trauma she has caused. To make matters worse, she complains about Meg not being sweet anymore and therefore likes Gabby better. At this point it is clear that Holly only sees her time as an out-of-control addict as something that has only been traumatic to her, not her children. Meg’s lack of sweetness seems to be a form of protecting herself. She has after all been clearly betrayed by both her parents. Holly ignores the fact that Meg perhaps has a reason to not trust her or have the energy to be kind. Holly comes off as a fairly self-centered parent. Her only saving quality as a parent is that she at least is clean of her drug dependency; even if Terry isn’t and has completely abandoned his children.
Unfortunately, Holly’s saving grace trait is ultimately lost in the narrative of the book when she gets a written script from Ray for the writer’s course she was giving at the prison. She reads it and remembers a conversation she had with Ray. Ray had told her he would send her the script he was working on, so that she could write a novel out of it. She says she can’t write, but he argues against it. Holly then remembers how she felt a connection to Ray after she lectured him about the first story he wrote for the class and during this exchange he engages her with a gaze. The narrative has this revelation pivot on the writing possibilities coming not from Ray beginning to write better texts for the class, mind you, but because he looked at her when she spoke.
After this odd memory, Holly is summoned to the police station since Chrystal meth is discovered in Holly’s household. Holly insists it is her husband’s Terry’s and the charges against her are suspended. After this Holly immediately decides to go looking for the convicted murderer Ray who is now free after his escape and living in Europe. Leaving her kids in the care of her mother Holly leaves for the Continent in a quest to reconnect with Ray. How we as readers are to bond with the evaded narrative justification of Holly seeking out, for her own development, the killer Ray on the immediate trauma of the drug bust on the children is left hanging and deferred in the tale. The confusion is heightened to the reader of this novel as we as now told that Holly has been sent Rays Story which is a recounting of the murder he has committed. Holly is confronted in the text with Ray stating in the story, and therefore to Holly, that he had no reason for the killing. His murder was empty and without reason. We find Holly as empty to the consequences of this statement as Ray is to the killing he performed. The Reader of Egan’s novel is confronted with the obvious: Ray is a highly dangerous and emotionally dead sociopath. Yet the narrative serves us up Holly who’s reactions and actions place Ray as a person who one, after all of the abandonment she has placed on those around her, is worth leaving her children for (even in the most emotionally stressful time).
Though the novel has Meg illustrated as flatly begging her mother to come back – we are positioned with Holly in this novel who bypasses this request all in favor of her “inner discovery” and still refuses (as does the novel) to think about the pain her daughter’s going through. “The Keep” ends with Holly arriving to the hotel Danny (the man Ray killed) and Howard worked on. She cries because she realizes she’ll never see Ray again and hangs around the hotel.
Intermixed with the slew of problems Egan’s” the Keep” entails we also find that the stance of the story wants us to sympathize with Ray and while we barely get to know him what is revealed in the text about his character is more disquieting than interesting. He comes off as perilous in the novel’s reveal, which makes Holly’s romantic interest in him seem obsessive, unhealthy and ultimately egocentric.
At last how can we not find Holly as the penultimate awful and emotionally abusive parent, which the narration of the novel gleefully glamorizes? This leads to the novel’s heart coming off as creepy and disturbing. Egan asks us to sympathize with characters that definitely don’t deserve the reader’s sympathy. No tragic events or psychological explanations are given to Ray to make his actions more human. No signs of self-reflection are given to Holly. So no sympathy can be given to the characters.
As a last note, it is worth saying that when done correctly, great literature has been done about prisoners. For example and as a recommendation, Tennessee Williams wrote a play about prisoners and their rights in his play “Not about Nightingales”.