Half Lit Mini — Jennifer Egan

While I finish up my adventure in Milwaukee and Chicago, here is a quick look at a book I really enjoyed: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep:

 

Jennifer Egan‘s third novel is seemingly a story with two plots. In one, two cousins reunite years after a tragic accident for a job opportunity in a faraway land. In the other, a creative writing instructor visits a prison and is moved by the writings of one of the inmates. How these two stories come together is a masterpiece of suspense craft.

The study of craft is important, for it is through this study that we can understand why the author made the choices that were made, and how these choices affect the overall story. With Egan, we have specific choices with regard to the use of quotes, of shifting perspective, and of the unique uses of diction to mold the story and draw out the mystery and suspense. In unprofessional hands, such choices can make the story feel muddled at best or, at worst, leave a mess of a novel that is unreadable. Egan is the furthest thing from an unprofessional, however.

With regard to the dialogue, it is important to consider the structure and framing of the direct and indirect dialogue. Egan’s lack of quotations is not a continuous choice throughout the novel. In fact, the quotations found around dialogue don’t appear until Part Three of the novel, which finally leaves the manuscript (I’ll go into more detail on this in a minute) for the immediacy of the real world and told from the viewpoint of Holly Farrell, the creative writing instructor for the inmates at the prison. In trying to discover the purpose of this use of quotes, I can only guess that previously in Parts One and Two we are enmeshed in this manuscript world. That is to say, we are in the narrator’s head as he tells the story of Danny and Howard. But we are also in his head again as he tells us what is happening in the prison. While there aren’t dates or other formal style-choices that would indicate so, it still feels like a journal, as though the narrator is relating his time in prison. In the third part of the novel, however, we have a stronger sense that we have stepped beyond the original narrator’s manuscript. But why use quotes for one and not for the other? Maybe the narrator isn’t sure of what was said, or why or how. Maybe Ray/Mick doesn’t want to pin down exactly what was said because maybe that would solidify his role as villain.

The second thing that struck me is the shift of perspective. To mimic Egan for a moment, let me show what I discovered in Egan’s changing focus.

3rd person limited—the narrator of the Danny/Howard portion of the novel only lets us into the head of Danny and doesn’t allow us to know what is going on with the other characters, in particular Howard and Mick. We know that Danny feels paranoia but we don’t know who it is he can’t trust, his worm. Danny thinks it’s his cousin. At the end we learn its Mick.
1st person—the narrator of the story, Ray, who for the longest time—we are led to believe—was told the story of what happened with Danny and Howard.

These two perspectives meet in the climax at the end of Part Two when Ray finally reveals that he shot Danny in the head. A little over half way down the page on 219 we see this shift: “Danny tried to lunge with his knife, but he was too late. He’d hardly moved when I fired at his forehead” (219).

1st person—Holly Farrell is given her own voice at the end to explore her feelings for the escaped convict Ray and her own adventure to the hotel in Europe where the Danny/Howard plot transpired.

The third and final stylistic choice I found with the novel can be summed up in one word. Diction. Not just the words of the book, so to speak, or the words that make up the book—to be more accurate—but the words that tell the how, the craft of the book (but this does or could bleed into the why).

Alto…A feeling of euphoria, like you are standing on top of the world and looking down on it. The Worm…that feeling of self-destructive paranoia that serves little purpose but to isolate and endanger the one whom the worm is feasting on. The Keep…a secure place, a stronghold where one’s most precious valuables were stored and could not be looted, an impenetrable fortress.

The words are not new words, but Danny takes the words and tweaks the definitions just a little to have more meaning in his life. These are words that he has given new significance and speak to him above and beyond the words the rest of us use daily that have become mundane. These words speak to the extreme, for Danny. As a character development tool, what this does is pull the character from the two-dimensions of the page. He formed these words in a life that primarily existed before the boundaries of the book. The redefinition of these words brings Danny to life.

But what that allows us to do as a reader is take her definitions and apply them to the book as a whole. The Keep becomes not just a stronghold in Danny’s heart, and not just a secure place in a castle. The prison serves as a keep for Ray, just as impenetrable for those trying to get out as those trying to get in. In a literary sense, the keep becomes a good novel, a stronghold of an author’s ideas that cannot be broken into, and as any engaging story, it is one that cannot be escaped as long as we are imprisoned between its pages.

 

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