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We Become the Monsters We Fear: Jennifer Egan on Gothic, Paranoia, and The Keep

The KeepA crumbling castle, an ancient aristocrat, a family secret, an illicit romance, revenge, incarceration, telecommunications: Like all good examples of the genre, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep overflows with gothic motifs. It’s eerie. It’s funny. It’s often rather touching. And it’s mesmerizing. I read it last October—when my daughter was just a few weeks old—whenever I could snatch a few minutes. (Sleep deprivation and the general freakiness of new parenthood were ideal complements to this magnificently odd novel, but not, I believe, necessary for enjoying it: Egan’s writing creates its own kind of altered state.) Indeed, I was so captivated by the book that I managed to think up a few interview questions, and the author very graciously agreed to answer them.

The Keep was a lot of fun to read—fun in a scary kind of way. Did you have a good time writing this novel? Did you ever creep yourself out writing this novel?

Jennifer Egan: I had a lot of fun writing the novel, mostly because I didn’t know what would happen (I never do) and I enjoyed sensing the ways in which the plots—and worlds—of the novel would gradually converge. One of the biggest technical questions on my mind was whether a book could be both funny and scary—I couldn’t think of any other books that are both, and I badly wanted this book to be both. And there were some moments that were creepier than I’d expected; I didn’t realize that Danny would sleep with the 98-year-old baroness until just before it happened, and I was startled when the group stumbles on the dead and moldering prisoners underground. And I’d have to say that I enjoyed that creepiness.

I know you did a kind of immersion course in gothic as you were researching The Keep. Did you enjoy your reading? Was this your first encounter with Walpole, Radcliffe, et al?

JE: I loved the reading. It was my first encounter with Walpole and Radcliffe (though I’d gotten a bit of Radcliffe through Northanger Abbey), but by no means my first encounter with the gothic—I loved Dark Shadows, the goofy 70s soap opera, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was a book that took over my life when I was about eleven—I really couldn’t think about anything else while I was reading it. John Fowles’s The Magus was another early favorite of mine, and it’s incredibly gothic. And I’ve always loved ghost stories. So no, I’d say I’ve had a casual longstanding interest in the genre

In your interview with Poets & Writers, you describe the gothic nature of much modern technology when you say, “We’re constantly communicating with people who aren’t there.” A few years ago, I taught a high-school class on gothic literature, and I read some lit-critical stuff about the uncanny quality of telephones and photographs and recorded voices. Dracula, for example, is just filled with new-fangled technology, but yours is the first recent novel I’ve read to explicitly explore the creepy, ghostly side of our disconnected connectedness.

JE: Yes, the connection has certainly been made before; I mean, Thomas Edison tried to invent a “spirit phone”—a telephone that could communicate with the dead! I guess as soon as you raise the possibility of communicating with people who aren’t there, that naturally invokes the possibility of communicating with people who really aren't there—because they’re not even alive. Interestingly, early on in my work on The Keep, I’d had the idea that communicating with the dead was Howard’s core project in making his hotel, but it came out too weird, and I think it’s implicit anyway. I guess that, in light of this new wave of technical disembodiment we're experiencing nowadays, it felt like a good time to revisit some of these ideas.

The critic Terry Castle is very good on the gothic appeal of people who aren’t there, the ways in which absence can be more desirable than presence. Certainly, Danny would rather be listening to voicemail from people continents away than talking to the people in the same room. It’s also true that Danny is, himself, kind of an absence, and the same can be said of Charlotte in Look at Me—she actually says it about herself. You’ve also written a pasty dungeon master who turns into a bronzed, blonde captain of finance; a terrorist who's constantly reinventing himself; and at least a few teenagers. What draws you to these protean characters, most of whom grow less substantial as their narratives progress?

JE: Well, I do have a longstanding interest in the power of absence; I think I probably explored that most fully in my first novel, The Invisible Circus, where a girl tries to understand the reason for her sister’s suicide, which happened at the end of the 1960s. Phoebe, the younger sister, is completely overwhelmed by the memory of her absent sister (who is physically her double—twinning again) and the period of history she missed—to the point where her own life feels unreal to her. I think the power of absent things originates with the impulse toward transcendence, or worship, which is deeply human. I also think it's the key to how image culture—advertising in particular—works on our imaginations and emotions.

Interestingly, I’m not sure I'd point to the examples you mention. To my mind, absence and change are two different things. I’m fascinated by the way people change over time, and I don’t see those changes as making them less substantial, as you suggest. The remarkable ways in which time works on people was Proust’s great subject, and his book is full of unexpected transformations: the unknown and pitiful composer who turns out to be a genius, the prostitute’s daughter who marries into the aristocracy, etc. As I get older, I find that watching time work on the people around me is the best show in town.

I might not have noticed it if I hadn't read Look at Me immediately after finishing The Keep, but the former is incredibly gothic, too. There are no castles with dungeons, but there’s a heroine with an uncanny ability to see people’s shadow side and, by the end, there’s a virtual version of the main character that is kind of a contemporary analog of an automaton. A number of reviewers praised Look at Me for its eerily prescient vision of our times. Do you think we're living in a gothic moment? (As I write this I am thinking not just of the fact that the sneakers I’m wearing are dotted with little pink skulls but also of the fact that the most powerful man in the world seems so keen on torture that he begins to look like a sadist.)

JE: Interesting idea. Well, to my mind the most central convention of the gothic is that it’s cut off from ordinary life, and one can’t tell whether the strange phenomena that are happening are real or not. And I do think we live in an era when the whole notion of “reality” is besieged, which is probably why our culture so fetishizes the notion—most spectacularly in the entirely artificial phenomenon of “reality TV.” So if you use that definition: cut off from ordinary life, and imbued with confusion about what is real and what is not, then I’d say we are indeed having a gothic moment. And I think 9/11 has heightened our gothic state in that it’s brought on such intense paranoia—a hugely gothic sensation. This was James’s great achievement in The Turn of the Screw, the most perfect gothic novel in my opinion: the destructiveness of paranoia, and the way it can turn us into precisely the monsters we fear. Worth thinking about right about now, I’d say.

July 25, 2007 | Permalink

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