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Anticipation of Attainment: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

18 April 2024


Anticipation of Attainment: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep


Egan’s novel, The Keep, was zany and off-the-wall—and it captured my interest almost immediately. What do we know about Egan? Well. She lives in Brooklyn and has published just about everywhere. Her novels have won awards; she also writes nonfiction essays for The New York Times Magazine. The book of hers most frequently recommended to me is Look at Me. And after reading The Keep, I might be on board to read another. When I have time. For now, let’s dissect this one.


Perhaps because most of the book is written in first person by a prison inmate, Egan’s prose is grounded, complex but not lofty, and often bucks standard craft expectations. Dialogue is an excellent example of this. Danny’s dialogue is introduced with names and colons instead of quotes: “Danny: I’m still trying to get the straight—is your hotel in Austria, Germany, or the Czech Republic?” (4). Ray’s dialogue is introduced only with tags: “Shoot, Holly says” (62). Holly’s dialogue uses standard tags and quotes: “’I want you to feel better,’ Gabby says” (243). Holly’s, the writing instructor’s, are the only sections that follow standard craft rules for dialogue. It’s a fascinating way of differentiating between protagonist viewpoints (all of which are first-person)—and it’s the same method Anne Enright uses in The Wren, The Wren, but with vastly different results.


The transitions between protagonist viewpoints (between first-person perspectives) was predominantly manageable; Danny’s headspace and voice and Ray’s headspace and voice were sufficiently distinct from one another that the shifts were comprehensible—with one exception. [*Spoiler Alert*] When Egan finagles Ray’s story so that Mick suddenly takes over the first-person protagonist (the I perspective), when Mick shoots Danny, I had to read the passage over and over and over to comprehend it: who is this new I? Whose head am I in now? And then…there was about a half hour of processing for me: Ray was Danny but now Ray is Mick—what? And all of Ray/Danny’s seemingly shared backstory…about caves and digging and paranoia and being number two—are suddenly also Mick’s. Oh boy, it was a mindfuck. Still, it worked because even in obliterating these craft expectations, Egan was writing from a prison inmate’s perspectives, for whom craft rules don’t exist. I loved that even though it jarred me out of the novel to process it.


Craft-wise, Egan did the same as J. Robert Lennon in Castle: she introduced an entirely new character, setting, and backstory right at the climactic moment of the book. In Lennon’s case, it made me set the book down for about a day and then force myself to continue reading. In Egan’s case, it annoyed me far less, perhaps because I was already so deeply sold on the story and character. Egan wove mystery and intrigue about Holly’s character throughout the book; we had no clue why she’d be at a jail teaching inmates to write. To be dropped, abruptly, into Holly’s head with 25 pages remaining in the book might have frustrated if I weren’t already so intrigued by and curious about Holly’s backstory—and how it continued its connection to the evaporated Ray.


All of this is important because I’m supposed to focus on the craft to determine why a book works, but the literary critic in me would be bereft if I did not address what appears to me the prevalent theme of the novel: anticipation. One thing is achieved in the climax of this story: freedom. Danny climbs from cave-like tunnels to save twenty-something people, including women and children, from entombment. Ray digs his way out of prison. Otherwise, the entire story centers upon anticipation without attainment. Danny wants to be number two, but Mick stands in his way. Danny wants to escape, but there are no trains. Ray wants Holly, but prison and Tom-Tom stand in the way. Mick wants to be with Ann but Howard stands in the way. In the end, though, it is Holly anticipation of attaining Ray at The Keep that drags the story to its conclusion—and Egan knows better than to provide resolution or satisfaction on that front.


The whole story is about how we achieve greater satisfaction (dopamine) from the anticipation of attainment than from the attainment of a thing, itself. This is why extramarital affairs happen despite quite happy marriages: the partner is so infinitely and readily available. It’s the thump in the chest when text bubbles appear (and why Danny so coveted his devices). It’s learning in for a first kiss. Arriving at the department store to shop, seek, find, all before arriving home with spoils that suddenly no longer satisfy. It’s why…it’s why…we’re willing to spar the big boss on screen just one more time, one more time. The anticipation is the sublime. Egan’s ending is perfect. Holly cannot have Ray because all is lost in the having. Better her imagination continue to invent ways they should meet…on and on into infinity. This continued foiled attainment is surer to gratify.

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