Now it’s like we’ve agreed not to look, because our eyes meeting up seems too private.
Jennifer Egan, THE KEEP
A teenage prank that might or might not have scarred the victim. Years pass, they’re both adults now, and one of them has invited the other to the Gothic castle he owns in Europe, with no telecommunications and the main road miles away. I think I know where this is going.
And it does go there – a man’s paranoia that the other man might still be holding him accountable to his old betrayal and is out to get him. It’s an oldie but a goodie and given how I enjoyed Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, I thought I was going to have a terrific time here as well.
It’s gripping but only for the first few chapters. It still manages to give some tension and thrills later on but only in bursts and jerks. It’s inconsistent because the plot suddenly swerves to something else with an entirely different theme, which has primarily to do with the metafiction that suddenly appears. It’s enjoyable and gives the story a bit more depth but only until the meta strand starts (unavoidably) to get a life of its own and blur the focus of the novel. One of Egan’s strengths is to be able to take the perspectives of multiple characters without making it feel as if some of them are main characters and some are only supporting (see A Visit from the Good Squad, where she has thirteen), but I think this isn’t the sort of novel where that should be happening. The multiple perspectives works for Goon Squad because there is a very strong unifying theme among all the character’s plotlines, but this one doesn’t have one. It has a unifying character but I wasn’t invested enough in him for him to carry the entire novel.
Regarding the main plot itself, the setting and the premise is great, the buildup is tense, but it starts falling apart around the midpoint. Not because it suddenly takes a turn for the strange – strange is a requirement for most of my book choices – it’s because the events start unfolding very dramatically at an entirely different pace. The events are also transparently too convenient at serving plot and the ending is just too fizzy and undeserved. When I put the book down, the feeling I had was I do not buy this story (and also: this would make a great Hollywood movie though, at that breakneck speed.)
But good stuff: characters. Egan’s skill at getting under their skin, their motivations, their past. She uses a very informal monologue to get into their heads – the words are simple and very day to day but convey truths and a very accurate verbalization of thoughts that everyone has but doesn’t know how to put into words. That was the first thing that drew me into Goon Squad – the point of view acrobatics second – and I’m glad that Egan is still in form and figure in that aspect here.