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Postmodern Gothic in Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

The term “gothic” usually connotes dilapidated buildings and eldritch foreign settings. But how does the gothic function in twenty-first century literature? In Jennifer Egan’s 2006 The Keep, she shows that we can still have conventional gothic tropes in the postmodern world, the most salient being the tenuousness of reality. By incorporating various technologies, Egan shows that people in the contemporary world have become too attached to methods of interaction that do not require face-to-face communication, and, in fact, this distancing can put reality into question. Although Danny appears to be a major character, his “realness” comes into question when Ray, a prisoner, appears to be writing Danny’s story as a fiction; thus, even the simple technology of a pencil can create enough distance to destabilize the presence of other human beings. But while Egan’s metafictional gymnastics add to the eeriness of the novel, the crux of the gothic resides in Danny’s experiences, which comprise most of The Keep. She shows the relevance of the gothic by playing with time and space as he experiences these fluid dimensions. Although time creates distance, spatiality can collapse temporal distance and reassert its own dimensionality. This collapse can enable past traumas to induce a gothic foreboding that presents relational closeness as illusory in the postmodern world, whether that closeness is put into question via telecommunications or by possibly writing characters into existence.

Danny, the protagonist, epitomizes the gothic because his future decisions hinge on a past trauma he has inflicted on his cousin Howard. During their adolescence, Danny plays a prank on Howard. While in a cave, Howard turns toward his cousin with a look of total trust, like he knew Danny would protect him. Like they understood one another. It happened faster than I’m making it sound: Howie looked at Danny and Danny shut his eyes and shoved him into the pool (Egan 14).

The moment when Danny pushes Howard severs any unspoken understanding of one another, irreparably cutting away any psychic connection that they may have had as children. Danny spends the rest of his life paranoid that Howard wants revenge. After spending three days trapped in the cave, Howard finally returns but has undergone a transformation from “nerd” to delinquent, signaling that this event must mean a drastic change has occurred.

The psychological torment of physical entrapment causes Howard to change into an enigmatic figure whose mind remains unreadable to the narrator. In contrast, Danny becomes a teenage sports star, and by adulthood, he has become more paranoid that Howard wants revenge, showing that his own psychological horror remains open to the narrator. Thus, when both characters have metamorphosed as adults—Howard as affluent entrepreneur and Danny as unemployed loser—Danny believes that this inversion of success finally provides Howard with enough power to avenge himself against Danny. Danny, however, takes the job that Howard offers him to renovate a castle as a hotel/spa in Eastern Europe. Despite his misgivings, he is desperate to leave the United States; thus, Danny willingly puts himself in danger, a decision that allows him to entertain his fears more vividly. Jerrold Hogle notes that the gothic invokes a certain apprehension that crosses temporal boundaries: “Sublimated fear requires this unique falsification of, yet continuing attraction towards, past obscurities that can be transferred into containing, while also disguising, the most fearsome of present-day conflicts among beliefs and states of being” (166). A postmodern take on the gothic, then, does not have to be supernatural but rather can take a past event and metamorphose its significance for a character. For Danny, the connection to the past causes him to feel terrified yet attracted toward revisiting the site of his fear: Howard.

By presenting Danny as a goth in a gothic novel, Egan further solidifies her tongue-in-cheek brand of gothic. As expected, he wears makeup and dyes his hair black, but Danny is not just some tawdry stereotype. Because this goth endeavors to ground the reader in his perception of reality rather than functioning as a perpetuator of exoticism, the goth subculture (and its association with goth/ic music and films) has entered mainstream discourse of the novel. His obsession with connecting to humanity via telecommunications casts him as a typical twenty-first century American, a perception exemplified in his role as “a hyped-up Everyman suffering from cellphone withdrawal in this remote cocoon” (S. Kelly). Because the castle has no access to electronic technology, Danny cannot connect with others outside the castle and becomes increasingly obsessed with his fantasy that Howard wants to destroy him. This psychological slippage as a result from his withdrawal does not make Danny idiosyncratic; rather, his reaction to the inability to connect illustrates the danger of too much dependence on telecommunications that could afflict any American who needs to connect in order to live fully. At one point, he wants to set up a satellite dish to use his cell phone because “[t]he need to get back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else” (Egan 36). In his mind, his wish to connect plays between the physical and psychological, the somatic and psychosomatic. Further, he believes he should be paranoid because not only is he severed from communication with the outside world, but also he lives in the castle with his possible nemesis. To emphasize the disequilibrium, Danny never discovers what European country he is in. (Maps appear to be useless.) While the spatial boundary for communication and supposed safety is restricted to his ingenuity and fear, Danny consciously floats in a space where he cannot know the location of his own body, which destabilizes his sense of self and environment.

In “Beginning with Postmodernism,” Adam Kelly focuses on the relationship between space and time, asserting that postmodernism is characterized by the “prominence of space over time” (394). By privileging spatiality over temporality, multiple narratives prove stronger than a single moment, and with technology, the gothic invokes nebulous, shifting, and duplicitous spaces. A voice does not necessarily convey reality; it may come from a cellular phone or one’s own mind. According to Kelly, it has “consistently fallen to gothic writing to register a haunted anxiety at the human repercussions of technological advancement” (406). For Egan, this power of telecommunications can “haunt” postmodern minds in the way that fantastic phenomena, including strange sightings or unusual encounters with technologies/objects, could haunt characters from earlier gothic works. The gothic genre exposes tension between the real versus the imagined and even reasserts history’s “nagging power” (A. Kelly 407). In the case of The Keep, the trauma of Danny’s adolescence takes on an almost superstitious fear that grows with time. The boundaries of space and time Egan breaks down are then used as reminders of basic human anxieties—that these boundaries do exist, even if fluidly.

As Danny becomes more dissociated from technology and gains awareness of the uncertainty of his environment, he experiences supernatural events that subvert the boundaries of reality. In an interview for The Writer, Egan notes, “I was interested in the ways technology has altered, or questioned, our sense of what is ‘real.’ Though I hadn't planned it consciously, the gothic environment was the perfect place in which to explore that question” (Johnson). At the castle, Danny meets the elderly baroness whose family has owned the castle for centuries and who continues living there even after Howard has paid for it. While an unexpected resident living in the keep poses some mystery, her supernatural ability to transform her age so that Danny finds her sexually desirable breaks down any strict perception of what constitutes reality. Her mutability functions as a way for her to escape the spatiotemporal restriction that controls Danny. Her doubleness acts as a trope that reflects both the play between interior and exterior and psychological and physical. This fluidity gives her the “two-faced” ability to act as both the erotic young woman and the vindictive crone. Such a mutable identity underscores the gothic as a state of uncertainty or destabilization when she employs a bombastic, potentially fatal scheme that redirects the danger Danny and others experience.

This negation of a unitary perception mirrors the dislocation that Danny undergoes once he considers the castle a prison. Since entrapment reflects a gothic trope wherein Danny’s mind helps to convince himself that he has become Howard’s prisoner, Danny, in effect, traumatizes himself by (mis)perceiving every interaction with his cousin as potentially pernicious. For Danny, then, the deprivation of information via cellular phone or Internet connection would have a simple solution if he could only find a way to connect. His immurement in the castle and the eerie events hinder him from any solution except a harrowing acceptance of a mutable reality reveal by his technological rootlessness. However, Egan wants more from her readers. She wants them to accept that this character may just be a fiction within a fiction, controlled by the memory of someone else similarly confined in a (real?) prison, creating a gothic puzzle that may be held together be the simplest technology: a writer’s pen.

Author’s Bio:

Justin Holliday is a lecturer and poet. His essays have appeared in The Readex Report and EAPSU: A Journal of Critical and Creative Work. His poetry has been featured in Glitterwolf, Sanitarium, Dreams and Nightmares, Phantom Kangaroo, and elsewhere.

Work Cited

Egan, Jennifer. The Keep. Knopf Doubleday, 2006.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Hyper-Reality and the Sublimation of Fear from Walpole to The Ring.”

English Language Notes. vol. 48, no.1, 2010, pp. 163-76.

Johnson, Sarah Anne. “Jennifer Egan on the Importance of Atmosphere: That, along with Voice

and Ideas, Drives Her Impressively Varied Fiction.” The Writer vol. 120, no. 5, May

2007.

Kelly, Adam. “Beginning with Postmodernism.” Twentieth Century Literature vol. 57, no. 3-4,

2011, pp. 391-419.

Kelly, Susan. ‘“The Keep: It’s Scary Good.” USA Today 9 Aug. 2006.