Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Real Terrors

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, Read by Jeff Gurner & Geneva Carr, BBC Audiobooks America, 2006

I tend to have a hair-trigger judgmental nature and make up my mind how I feel about things rather quickly. This is not to say that my opinions become set in stone or are not subject to later revision. It’s just that my opinion forming reflex is pretty finely honed.

The most satisfying thing about Jennifer Egan’s The Keep was how consistently it upended my expectations. The moment I thought I could predict what the novel would do next, it shifted; the moment I thought I had a handle on its shape, it became something else; what I partially wrote off in my mind as a simple little thriller became something much trickier to quite categorize. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is for me.

Ostensibly this is the story of Danny King and his cousin Howie, and why they move to Central Europe. Danny is the ex-football hero turned hipster fallen on hard times as middle age has approached. His cousin Howie bought a decrepit old castle and now invites Danny to move out there with him to begin a new kind of vacation adventure business. Howie, the imaginative, chubby dork in junior high, has almost stereotypically flowered as the later in life success story.

I say “almost stereotypically” because their story isn’t quite as simplistic as that. On a picnic when they were just entering their teen years, goaded on by another, older cousin, Rafe, Danny pushed Howie into a grotto pool inside a cave, then the two elder boys ran off, abandoning Howie to the dark. Three days later, he was found. Three days.

Howie’s normal and nice dorkiness was twisted in those three days, and he turned sullen after that. He got into drugs, bought a gun, tried to rob a store, and ended up in jail. Once we hear this story, it is impossible not to fear (and foresee) that this novel will be primarily a story of revenge. Exactly what Howie, as an adult now known as Howard, has planned and when it will unfold is the dynamic tension.

Or so we think. Because Egan is about to perform the first of her pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-us maneuvers. This story, we discover, with its foreordained plots of retribution and its somewhat clich├ęd character types, isn’t the actual story of the novel. No, it’s merely a manuscript being written by a convict in a prison creative writing program.

The story of the creative-writing program class and the actual writing of the Danny/Howie story is narrated by Ray. He tells the story of these two cousins, seeing into the head of Danny, which allows us to believe at first that that is the real story. Ray’s voice in telling his own story is a slangy kind of conversation, breaking down the various normative aspects of narration.

What’s interesting about these two accounts is that when Ray is writing about the two cousins, the story invokes a number of archetypal elements of ghost stories and revenge tales and the prose takes on a kind of shriller, overall more predictable melodramatic tone and style. When he shifts to his own prison life, speaking of himself rather than through proxy characters, there is a real throbbing desperation that cries out in his voice. Something about words and how they’re used, how they’re viewed in prison leaps out from him:

[T]his place is a word pit. Words get stuck in here, caught from when the clock stopped on our old lives. So now, when a fight starts up, I don’t walk away like I used to. I crowd in and wait for those ghost words to start coming up. I’ve heard chump and howler and groovy; I’ve heard fuzz and kike and kraut and coon and square and roughhouse and lightweight and freakshow and mama’s boy and cancer stick and fairy and party-hearty and fly boy and knuckle sandwich. Don’t forget, we got lifers in here with false hips and false teeth who can tell you tales about rolling bums on the Bowery if you get them going. And I grab up these expressions. I trap them in my head, and I save them. Because every one has the DNA of a whole life in it.

Another delightful moment (and the bulk of them happen in prison with Ray rather than in the story of Danny and Howie, partly because Danny is a shallow little shit) happens when Mel, another prisoner in the writing class, gets angry with Ray because he wants to know what’s going to happen next in the Danny story. The anticipation makes him “uncomfortable” and when he’s made uncomfortable, Mel attacks. Holly, the teacher, tries to calm Mel and explain that the anticipation and eagerness to know what comes next is what makes writing successful, but Mel’s having none of it.

Likewise there is Ray’s cellmate, who keeps many hidden things under his bunk including a shoebox full of dust and dirt with knobs punched through the sides. A radio, he tells Ray, for listening to the dead, listening to the voices of the dead from the other side. After a prison fight, Ray actually begins to believe that the thing works.

This fight, it turns out, happens because Ray’s sorta-kinda friend Tom-Tom reads for the first time in writing class, reads something amazingly brilliant and poetic and beautiful scrawled over 80 pages in huge childish handwriting. For reasons he’s unable to quite articulate, Ray is the only one in class who can say nothing about how good Tom-Tom’s writing is. Offended, Tom-Tom shanks him in the cafeteria on pancake day.

The elements of Ray’s story are so enjoyable that even when we learn that Danny’s story is Ray’s story gussied up some, it matters little. By the time that revelation sprang upon this reader, I’d forgotten that I’d predicted much earlier that that would be the case. That prior prediction and opinion now seemed inoperable and insignificant. Because the book, despite my expectations, was not about how Ray learns to use his gift for writing to clean out the wounds from his past.

Indeed, by the time Ray confesses to Holly, his writing teacher, that he’s the Danny of his story, the book has decided to shift again to yet one more frame outside Ray’s story. What we find out at that point is that Ray’s story is being recounted to us by Holly, his writing teacher, after she has been fired from her teaching position in the prison.

We pick up with Holly’s story and it manages to fully encompass both the Danny/Howie plot as well as the Ray plot while also setting up the story in yet a completely different way from the previous two.

If there’s any weakness to all of this it’s that we get precious too little of Holly who is far too interesting to be so short-changed like this. A former drug addict turned teacher, her mounting troubles in the book’s last few chapters are enough for a novel by themselves. Even her time as a teacher in a prison, surrounded by dangerous and violent men, trying to teach some of them the rudiments of self-expression, has within it plenty more than the novel tells us. And like Mel, I kept wanting to know “what comes next.” That, I suppose, is as good a definition of successful writing as I can come up with right now.

Jeff Gurner and Geneva Carr are one of the recent pairings of readers I’ve listened to lately where it truly felt important to have differing readers for the story. Books such as The Alchemist’s Daughter spent 99% of the time with one reader and brought in a man to read the narrator’s father’s letters, a pointless exercise. Here, Gurner shifts back and forth between Danny’s story and Ray’s neatly with subtleties hard to describe but easy for the ear to discern. Geneva Carr moves us nicely into the world of a fallen woman working her way back up with dignity only to run afoul again. Throughout her delivery, she makes us feel the character of Holly as a decent person undone by weakness. In the end, that’s more harrowing than all the bugaboos of Danny’s story.

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