'The Keep', Jennifer Egan's third book, is a cleverly written novel that conceals its true nature almost to the end. At the outset, it appears to be a modernised gothic thriller: Stephen King rewritten by an author of a more literary bent. As it develops, it becomes apparent that this first story is itself being told by an at first unnamed narrator, whose personal story then frames and comments on it. But Egan is far from finished. A third story emerges, within which the second story takes its place as an episode. The reader constantly has to readjust: are any of these stories fictional, or are they all to some extent real?
Egan is a sophisticated writer who is clearly familiar with the likes of Mrs. Radcliffe, but also comfortable with postmodernist and metafictional games. She presents her take on both with a light touch. As in older gothic stories, there is play with levels of reality, suspicion and threat. Ultimately, the author handles serious themes - drug addiction, prison life, guilt for past misdeeds, fear of growing up and growing old - with confidence and conviction.
Egan has since won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for 'A Visit From the Goon Squad') and her intelligence and subtlety certainly deserve to be taken seriously. I enjoyed 'The Keep' rather more than its prize-winning successor - possibly because I like the gothic mode, possibly because I had lower expectations. I suspect that readers will differ in their reactions depending on whether they expect straightforward thrills, or are prepared to be led deeper by Egan through stranger and less purely entertaining tunnels. On the other hand, readers familiar with the more self-conscious metafictions of Italo Calvino, Franz Kakfa and others may find 'The Keep' a little too postmodern-lite, and a little too American in its solutions.