Jennifer Egan should adopt a nom de plume—"J. Egan" would do quite well. An unfortunate side effect of the popularity of chick lit and poetic, memoir-ish "women's novels" is that a woman's name on the cover creates a certain expectation about what's inside. And Egan subverts that expectation as thoroughly as any woman writing today. Her previous novels pigeonhole themselves in typical women's-fiction categories by their synopses (model finds self, teenage girl finds self) and cover photos (youthful female faces). With The Keep, however, Egan breaks the mold from page one. Her muscular, lively prose achieves a haunting effect closer to Chuck Palahniuk than Marilynne Robinson—not the tenuous, lacy phrases of fragile introspection, but the stark honesty of action arrested in stop-motion.
The first two parts of The Keep jump between Danny, a refugee from New York City who's been invited to help renovate an ancient castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, and Ray, the prison inmate who's writing Danny's story. Egan achieves a kind of heart-stopping, stomach-lurching shift the first time Ray's authorial "I" intrudes on Danny's narrative: "He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how I'm supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don't know." Ray has become addicted to his story of childhood friends facing old demons and shape-shifting baronesses locked in impregnable towers, because he craves the attention of his writing instructor Holly. His character Danny joneses for connection, the kind made over a cell phone or an Internet hookup, to beat back the worm of paranoia and fear sleeping in his gut. The final chapter abandons Ray and Danny for the perspective of Holly, the writing teacher.
The Keep maintains a frightening, vertiginous velocity throughout its complex warp and woof of narrators. Egan sketches the precipices her characters negotiate, internal and external, without slipping into comforting omniscience. And the immersion in these high-stakes psychological tightrope acts gives The Keep a page-turning horror. Just as well that the publishers didn't slap a girl's face on the cover; if they could take the "Jennifer" off, too, Egan might get the kind of masculine (or at least gender-neutral) reading her outstanding novel deserves.