An experimental novel wrapped in gothic velvet, Jennifer Egan's "The Keep" is an involving if convoluted read, with an irresistible...

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“The Keep”
by Jennifer Egan
Knopf, 240 pp., $23.95

An experimental novel wrapped in gothic velvet, Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep” is an involving if convoluted read, with an irresistible setting. Danny, a 36-year-old Manhattan hipster with a past he’d clearly like to distance himself from, arrives at a mysterious setting somewhere, we’re told, where the borders of Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic meet. It’s late at night, and his destination casts ominous shadows in the darkness: a medieval castle, complete with towers and high walls and (he will soon learn) an ancient, strange baroness whose family built the fortress centuries ago.

The castle is now owned by his cousin Howard, who’s invited Danny to help renovate it; the plan is to convert the place into a posh, escapist hotel. But that’s far in the future; currently it’s a crumbling, murky place, full of unexplored corners and mysterious subterranean passages. Danny uneasily recalls an incident from his childhood, in which Howard was traumatized after being trapped in a cave due to Danny’s recklessness. The stage seems set for a grown-up echo of that event; and, indeed, it is.

Egan’s third novel (she also wrote “Look at Me” and “The Invisible Circus”) employs a narrative structure trickier than that of her previous works. The story is written, we learn, by a prison inmate in a writing class. Ray, the narrator, remains an elusive figure, occasionally popping into the text for a short chapter as if to remind us of his presence.

It’s a technique that’s at times effective — you can see the parallels between the prison and the castle — but not always graceful. In some passages the writing is intentionally awkward, as if written by a novice author, but it can also be startlingly vivid. A late scene, set in the bowels of the castle, is as tautly paced as a classic thriller; you feel the closeness of the walls and the earthy smell of the passages.

Author appearance

Jennifer Egan reads from “The Keep,” 7 p.m., Wednesday, at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

A final twist results in perhaps one too many layers; Egan seems to delight in pulling the narrative rug out from under her readers here. (It would be, of course, a dusty Persian rug, its once-lush pattern now moth-eaten and indistinct against the stone floor.) But “The Keep” is a fine achievement, particularly in its portrait of Danny, a strange but elegantly sketched antihero.

There’s something pathetic yet haunting about this aging goth (Danny powders his skin white and dyes his hair black), who seems to have spent much of his life in a secret tunnel. His musings, often tinged with regret, color the book’s pages as much as the atmospheric details of the castle do. After a failed attempt to call an abandoned lover back home, Danny is struck by loss — a loss “without the release of yelling or kicking — just that feeling of wanting something so badly you can’t believe the force of your wanting won’t make it be there, won’t make it come back.”

Moira Macdonald is the Seattle Times movie critic.