“Exactly the way you imagine”: The Ethical Status of Technological Connection in Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

I’ve been looking in detail at Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, and thinking about the ethics of the technological interaction, as well as the image of the human being Egan gives us. Communication through phone, radio and the Internet is instrumental in constructing our understanding of the main theme of the novel, how we connect with other human beings. The protagonist (of the main narrative at least), Danny, finds mental and personal comfort in all kinds of technological connection. When his desire to be connected is satisfied, it often manifests itself in an embodied reaction becoming a physical, haptic thing. Egan connects the digital – what is sometimes considered a separate world, a form lacking in humanity – with biology, with embodied experience.

This might make Danny a post-human construct, one who relies on technology as a way of framing his experience. The intimacy of the reactions, the “joy” he feels, comes from the fact that his is better able to comprehend himself, his “place in all things”. Danny, it seems, is someone who has to come to understand (or has always understood) his life as episodic. Consider his multiple identities, his shifting jobs, his dislike of remembering things. It is through singular moments of technological interaction that he is able to maintain his relationship with other people – they are not part of the past or the future, but are ‘in the moment’ of connection too. The alternative is constructed as a form of living death:

To Danny, the thought of disappearing like that was worse than dying. If you were dead, fine. But being alive but invisible, unreachable, unfindable – it would be like those nightmares he used to have where he couldn’t move, where he seemed to be dead and everyone thought he was dead but he could still feel and hear everything that went on.

Without connection, we are not alive. This insecurity surrounding connection and disconnection, between society and isolation, between life and death, is contained in the form of the novel. A Neo-Gothic text, The Keep is preoccupied with the reworking of traditional Gothic devices: the revenant runs throughout every level of the text. All the characters in the novel have something to forget, something that they that they want to remove from their narratives: the traumatic event that nearly killed Howard; Danny’s guilt over leaving Howard “to die”; Mick and Ann’s affair; Holly’s drug addiction. This wide range of conflicts, from childhood trauma to adult love, demonstrate the ethical complexity of human life. Human beings have to deal with ethically problematic events, conflicts in which we don’t come out as morally sound as we might want to. How to live with the consequences of actions which disturb your comprehension of yourself and of your relationship to Others, the thing which in Danny’s words builds “a pressure in your skull”, is the central concern of this Gothic narrative. The revenant, in Egan’s hands, becomes a way of describing the tragic arc of human life. The most significant example of this is the way the ‘castle’ narrative works as a form of therapy for Ray, the murderer trying to comprehend his actions while doing time, during his writing classes taught by Holly.

Ray’s authorial voice breaks through into the “written” narrative at many points throughout the novel, but the final breach at the climax of the ‘castle’ story confirms the human concern at the heart of text, and articulates the conflict involved in remembering or unremembering morally problematic acts. Ray appears to be mentally conversing with the construct, Danny:

Where the fuck did you come from? I said.
Danny smiled. He said: You didn’t really think I was going to leave you alone?
He said: Haven’t you learned that the thing you want to forget most is the one that’ll never leave you?
He said: Let the haunting begin. And then he laughed.
He said: We’re twins. There’s no separating us.
He said: I hope you like to write.
And then he started to talk, whispering in my ear.

Ray can’t forget the thing he most wants to forget, when he killed a man for reasons which are never clearly articulated; he actually rejects the idea that there is an intelligible reason for the killing. This act, reflected in Danny’s shoving of Howard into the pool, is reminiscent of Meursault in L’Etranger, as though this novel could be seen as in counterpoint to the self existing in a kind of authentic isolation after killing the Other (I’m not about to jump into the L’Etranger question here, but it’s an irresistible parallel). To continue with the reading of the human and connectivity in Egan’s novel though, this passage appears to highlight the insecurity at the centre of her version of humanism. It is conveyed in the form of a conversation, as though one pseudo-connection takes the place of a connection which was negated, wiped out, and has left anxiety in its wake. With interior insecurity comes forth the voice of the Other in Ray, as though trying to reconstruct the inter-subjective concern he himself so violently rejected with his crime.
At this point, where the different sites of repression in the novel are drawn together, Ray’s cellmate Davis’s quasi-supernatural radio (the shoebox of dust and human detritus, the magic-technology that Ray comes to believe in) is the only ‘sound’. It becomes a silent solace beneath the problem of being unable to forget, representing the possibility of meaningful connections with the Other again, connections which are not conditioned by the trauma of memory. These are episodic connections – ones that we can repeat anew, again and again, without fear of those previous conflicts destroying our ability to be happy, or content, or joyful.

The message we might take about the ethics of technology in human understanding is this. Human beings need to comprehend and rethink the actions they regret, the moral conflicts which have gone wrong, in order to be able to live as moral beings. And whether it works or not, the technological interaction is a way of rewriting – or rewiring – ourselves, to replay and repeat the confrontation with the other person, with society, in order to help us re-imagine those things which would otherwise disrupt our ability to understand our place in relation to other people, and thus to live effectively within a form of ethical integrity.

Egan reworks another key Gothic trope – that of the sublime – in presenting what can happen when the subject is able to move past those conflicts which corrupt out moral understanding, as Holly appears to be able to at the end of the text. Her voice attempts to articulate the sublime moments of experience, when “things are exactly the way you imagine they’ll be”, when one regains control over interactions – when freed from physical or mental boundaries which isolate us. This articulation, I have argued, is realised through a construction of the self/other intersubjectivity as conditioned by technology, one that is transcendent. There is a final synthesis of this at the end of Holly’s story, and the end of the novel itself, which combines the sublime moment with a ritual of connection, the ‘click’:

In the total quiet of this place, I can hear snow falling through the air and landing on the marble. A trillion invisible clicks […] and I don’t know if it’s the snow, or the night, or that pale green water, or something else that’s separate from all that, but as I walk to the edge of the pool I’m filled with an old, childish excitement.

For this novel, isolation in any form is an ethical problem, and technological communication is a way of breaking out of the self, to imagine your way out of prison, to be reassured of having a place in the world. Making a connection which engages our imaginative capabilities is the only way to regain knowledge of the self, to recover when one can no longer comprehend the ethical choices we have made.

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