BEST-KEPT SECRET

The Keep
Publishing House: Knopf
Rated: NONE
WorkNameSort: Keep, The

The paperback edition of Jennifer Egan's Look at Me contains an afterword, written more than a year after the novel's January 2001 release, in which she allows 'it may be nearly impossible to read about [a terrorist character] outside the context of Sept. 11.â?� This type of disclaimer was omnipresent at the time, when sensitivity dictated that even a Twin Towers-inclusive Simpsons episode must vanish from syndication. In retrospect, Egan's terrorist thread foreshadows American Dreamz more than the actual attacks, but her concept of the PersonalSpace website, 'devoted to the lives, internal and external, of ordinary Americans,â?� seems spectacularly prescient.

Assuming Egan retains her oracular abilities, investors should start converting Eastern European castles into exotic 'electronics- and telecommunications-free environments,â?� assuming they're willing to weather a few harrowing ordeals. The titular keep once served as a medieval panic room, a tower in which entire kingdoms would seek asylum from invading hordes. Idealistic entrepreneur Howard sees this castle-adjacent centerpiece as a place where people can reignite their imaginations.

'We've lost our ability to make things up,â?� he says, zealously explaining his mission to his cousin Danny. 'We've farmed that job out to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us.â?� To Howard, telecommunications technology has an oppressively supernatural effect. Phone lines conjure disembodied voices, like invisible poltergeists, and computers generate words with unseen fingers, like letters mysteriously appearing in a shower-steamed mirror.

Danny, the primary protagonist, isn't especially enamored with the thought of triggering any illusions, especially given his surroundings. Drowned twins lie submerged in a fetid pool, underground torture chambers radiate ancient pain, a centenarian baroness keeps wicked watch from a window bathed in a red glow, and Howard, for all his apparent amiability, once suffered a cruel, unavenged prank at Danny's hands. Egan recreates his paranoia-addled thought processes until his absurd scenarios start to make twisted sense.

Such stellar internal detail comes, implausibly enough, from a writing student in a maximum-security prison, the book's parallel setting. Ray, the narrator, reveals himself in the book's first chapter as just 'the guy talking,â?� but while he occasionally pleads inexperience ('I wish I knew how to sprinkle these answers around so you'd get the information without even noticingâ?�), he composes most of his narrative using Egan's unmistakably brilliant voice. Even Ray's ostensibly amateurish devices, such as chronicling Danny's thoughts in numbered lists, reveal considerable wit. However, the story's suspense distracts from this inconsistency, even rendering it irrelevant.

When Ray reads a few chapters aloud to his cellmates, a 'big, dumb and dangerousâ?� inmate named Mel instructs him to keep reading, because not knowing what happens next makes him (ominously intoned) uncomfortable. This thrilling unease might not trigger violent outbursts in readers without rap sheets, but it makes single-sitting consumption almost mandatory. Egan prolongs this anticipation throughout the tautly plotted pages, then delivers a final-third epiphany that lands like a shank in the side.

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