Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I'm an admirer of Jennifer Egan's ambitions. She writes novels the way Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson, John Updike, and Toni Morrison write novels. With the intent not only to tell a story but also to say something, to at least observe, and possibly comment, on life the way it is lived. The Keep alternates between a story of a strange castle in a strange country that is being remodeled (kind of) into an out-of-body resort intended to restore visitors' imaginations (or at least that's my interpretation) and the story of the guy writing the castle story. He's in prison, in a prison workshop. And then at the end, there's a surprise third story that makes the scope of the novel one step larger. And it almost works. My one problem was as I was reading, I kept feeling like the prison story wasn't necessary (it was reiterating the themes of the castle story but in a much more obvious way) and it wasn't until the third story (the very end of the novel) that it felt necessary. So the question is can a reading be redeemed by a strong finish? Probably not. There should be some way to make all three sections work. Part of the problem with the prison sections was they were very meta-fictional, but they seemed to be for an audience/readers who don't write fiction. So they were questions/comments about writing that struck me as very obvious. Made me wonder about who I think meta-fiction should be for--for an audience who is already expert in writing and therefore wants some complex comment or for an audience who is curious but unknowledgeable about writing. The latter is fine, certainly it's a broader audience; just not me, I guess.

But still, I'm an admirer. One of the things Egan does to take her writing beyond fiction to literature, is to use characters who have philosophies. And Danny (the protagonist of the castle story) is that kind of guy. For example: "Fear was dangerous. It let in the worm: another word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago, smoking pot or doing lines of coke and wondering what to call that thing that happened to people when they lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic? Those words were all too flat. But the worm, which is the word they finally picked, the worm was three-dimensional..."

Another interesting thing she does here is use play formatting for much of her dialogue. For the most parts readers ignore all the "said"s and "asked"s that we throw into fiction, but as anyone who notices the rhythm of their writing, needing to add or subtract syllables based on how the sentences sound... well, you know those saids can mess you up. I don't think Egan is making some major point (partly her prison workshop writer breaks rules because he doesn't know them) but it works as a small innovation. I might just borrow it sometime.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Airborne Toxic Event

It's true my love of books washes over into my musical taste: The Books (do I really need to explain?), Sufjan Stevens (also a fiction writer)... but this is my new favorite band:

Not only does their name come from White Noise, but one of their songs ("The Girls in Their Summer Dresses") is an adaptation of an Irwin Shaw short story.