Beneath Charted Waters: On Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach

John Marchinkoski

New York, NY: Scribner, 2017. 448 pages. $27.00.

If readers have come to expect anything of Jennifer Egan, they’ve learned to anticipate her versatility, inventiveness, and penchant for surprise. In 2012, she published her short story “Black Box” through the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Her joyfully frenetic A Visit From the Goon Squad carried an enormous cast of characters across half a century, featured an entire chapter in Microsoft PowerPoint, and defied conventions of both the short story collection and the infinitely more marketable novel, despite its classification as the latter. Egan’s newest book, Manhattan Beach, is delightfully and unapologetically a novel. Unlike A Visit From the Goon Squad, we dedicate most of our time to a small cast of characters and come to rely on the natural ease with which Egan reveals their faults, virtues, and idiosyncrasies. Readers familiar with Egan will draw comparisons to her 2001 novel, Look At Me, where, like in Manhattan Beach, two chief characters occupy the most of the narrative’s attention and, by its conclusion, propel it into near spectacle. Gratefully lacking from Manhattan Beach, perhaps only by virtue of its World War II setting, is a pervasive air of cynicism and reflexive self-awareness. Instead, each chapter of Manhattan Beach delivers the same emotional gut punches we endured in Goon Squad, but this time centers them on a lean set of characters through traditional narration.

Egan’s newest novel both is and isn’t a departure from form. Manhattan Beach contains qualities readers have already come to associate with her—an adaptive female protagonist, a shadowy force lurking at the story’s periphery, a relentless search for reinvention, and a musical rhythm that brackets the narrative as a whole but never threatens to invade its prose. Punk rock crept through the pages and, indeed, the ethos of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach features a more subdued but no less poignant rhythm, favoring a noir croon to a blaring guitar. After the publication of Goon Squad, Egan even seemed the closest an author could come to a literary punk rocker. Some might interpret Egan’s shift from formal subversion and eclectic perspectives to third-person narration and a relatively linear plot as a regression of sorts, but this would prematurely dismiss a well-crafted and well-executed historical novel.

For the majority of the book, we follow Anna Kerrigan, a factory worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II pursuing her dream of becoming one of the first women divers. Opposite Anna runs the connected story of Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner and gangster with mysterious connections to Anna’s missing father, Eddie Kerrigan, who, like Anna, bears an inscrutable connection to the sea.

If World War II, New York City gangsters, and overcoming prejudice in the workplace strike you, despite their firm foundations in reality, as cliché constructions, rest assured Egan is aware. When a recalcitrant lieutenant enters the story, reluctant to let Anna dive and bashful of her undemonstrated weakness, we know exactly whose respect Anna will command by the novel’s end. When Manhattan Beach threatens to slide into a syncopated, familiar beat or ride Freytag’s triangle, it deals out enough abstractions, flourishes, and deviations to remain wholly unique, original, and fun. Egan’s descriptions of diving in clunky, pneumatic equipment, for example, feel both methodical and dreamy. As two characters press their diving helmets together to speak underwater, the copper plating robs them of tone and emotion, transmitting only affectless words through their gear. When rising from the deep, Anna feels like she’s flying. These small, palpable moments join with larger narrative turns to make for truly poignant writing. In fact, Egan writes about diving and 1940s New York with enough skill and joy to suggest that her turn toward more traditional narrative might come from a simple, genuine desire to tell a story of Manhattan Beach in wartime. By the end of the book, Egan’s scenes hit with all the emotional weight of a freight train or, more aptly, the seething, rib-crushing pressure of the deep sea.

If any singular, totalizing notion looms over Manhattan Beach—as it has over Egan’s other work—it’s time’s simultaneously empowering and frightening ability to deliver us beyond our present selves. In her 2001 novel, Look At Me, this push toward reinvention is peculiarly American: Z, a terrorist undercover on American soil, becomes addicted to reinvention, eventually settling to venture West in hopes of joining the film industry; similarly, Charlotte, a fashion model, disfigures her face and must learn to navigate the formerly contemporary America as an object of only average beauty. Manhattan Beach feels far less fatidic. The war, criminal machinations, and good old human passion do unseat, and, in more than one instance, kill her characters, but they still linger beside their pasts in a time of drastic flux. The characters of Manhattan Beach can go back home, but they might not know how to feel about how both it and they have changed. The era of the Second World War does not necessarily, as some of the novel’s characters seem to purport, make heroes of those caught in its strife or those looking, in service to the age-old American ideal, to better themselves. Consequently, the war’s effect on a Brooklyn neighborhood never comes across as didactic or morally binary. While the war in Europe and on the ocean manifests as a rupture, the war at home is one of history’s great liminal spaces. It’s no surprise that Anna, her father, and even Dexter Styles are drawn to the shore—geography’s natural limit. They strain against not only the confines of what their world has to offer them, but against the land itself.

Egan, too, has strained against her own history in producing this novel. It’s not complete reinvention, like Z’s in Look at Me, but a collage of familiarity and emotional artifice, not artificial emotion. Irony doesn’t completely depart the pages of Manhattan Beach but is muted beside a much more robust, genuine pathos. Particularly cynical readers might interpret this change as a deft commercial maneuver, symptomatic of a greater shift in literary fiction from aloof experimentalism to a kind of new realism. The craft, care, and love with which Egan renders her characters and the worlds they inhabit, however, absolves her of these charges. The most powerful scenes in the book transcend the trappings of realism, or, perhaps, are indicative of a deeper realism whose only vectors are style and innovation. One of the book’s strongest moments, made great by interpolated narration and a moment of stylistic ostentation, comes when Anna and Dexter bring Anna’s disabled sister, Lydia, to see the ocean. It’s the closest a contemporary American writer has come to matching Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetic epiphany on the Dublin shore in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and its sentiment reappears later on to great effect. For someone so proficient in the experimental, Egan knows when and how to hold back, and it’s what makes Manhattan Beach such a pleasure. There’s a certain charm to human trauma and success told in a quiet voice. A gangster’s hope to transform his business into something positive, the story of a missing, waylaid father, the Kerrigan’s struggles in caring for Lydia, Anna’s beautiful and disabled sister—these moments communicate themselves without want or need for stylistic input. In fact, such topics demand nothing other than good, inexorable writing. A certain ineffable quiddity brings us again and again to these tried and true subjects—to renewal, to longing, to heartache. Before you know it, that quiet voice grows loud, and you come to love its sonorousness.

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