Many reviewers of Jennifer Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach have found the book ‘surprising’ for being straightforward and conventional. Her previous and best-known book, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), was lauded for being formally inventive. Each of its 13 chapters is different: one chapter is a footnoted celebrity profile written by a journalist in prison for sexually assaulting said celebrity; another is a series of PowerPoint slides created by a 12-year-old about music (they’re about pauses in great rock’n’roll songs) and her family. The novel, which won a Pulitzer, secured Egan’s reputation as an astute analyst of the present, the recent past and even the near future – it ranges from 1979 to the 2020s. It also guaranteed that her next book, whatever it was, would be widely reviewed. It’s within that structure of inevitability and obligation that reviewers call Manhattan Beach ‘surprising’.
The idea that Manhattan Beach is a radical departure for Egan – or, rather, a departure that is radical in being conservative – depends on not looking back very far. She is a ‘refreshingly unclassifiable novelist’ (New York Times on The Keep), which makes it all the sillier to suggest that her latest is remarkable for its unexpectedness. She does have certain durable concerns: the American obsessions with technology and image, the ways history shapes our longings, and nostalgia. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1995), is a coming-of-age story set in San Francisco and Western Europe in 1978 that examines the legacy of the 1960s. Look at Me (2001), a fragmented novel featuring a model with a surgically reconstructed face, is, among other things, a satire of the fashion world and dotcom mania. The Keep (2006), a neo-gothic tale written by a prisoner for a fiction workshop (though the novel exceeds that frame), centres on a broke New York scenester at a castle in Eastern Europe which is being converted into a kind of digital detox resort. ‘It can be hard to say what kind of novelist she is,’ Alexandra Schwartz wrote in a recent New Yorker profile. ‘She is a realist with a speculative bent of mind, a writer of postmodern inclinations with the instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer.’
It’s easy, however, to say what kind of novel Manhattan Beach is: a historical novel. In its opening chapter, set in 1934 in Brooklyn, 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father, Eddie, a union man yearning for a change, on a visit to the mysterious Dexter Styles, who lives in a mansion on Manhattan Beach, next to Coney Island. By the fifth chapter, we are in 1942. Eddie has vanished and Anna, now 19, is working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard – first inspecting ship parts, then as the only female diver, performing underwater repairs on battleships – to support her mother, Agnes, and her severely disabled sister, Lydia. When Anna runs into Dexter at one of the nightclubs he owns (he’s a racketeer, it turns out), she remembers meeting him as a child and senses that he may know the answer to a question she has long suppressed: what happened to her father? (Was he offed by the mob, or did he simply run away, fed up with his bad luck and stifling home life?) The rest of the book mostly follows Anna in her quest, sometimes shifting to Dexter’s and Eddie’s past lives and current predicaments.
Manhattan Beach feels different from Egan’s other books in its studiedness. While the others may have been well researched (Egan didn’t know anything about the music industry before starting Goon Squad), they don’t smell of the lamp. In writing a historical novel about organised labour, organised crime and the war, Egan has taken on two challenges: to document the past without being boring or hokey, and to reveal something new about a period whose mythologies and aesthetics still have meaning to us. These challenges are, in a sense, at odds with each other: as Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men have shown, creating a plausible, interesting world depends on embracing the accepted mythologies and aesthetics of the time – indeed, on aestheticising the mythologies (mid-century sexism sure looks sexy smoking) and mythologising the aesthetics (everything was just so).
The world of Manhattan Beach feels thoroughly plausible, if sometimes drawn with a heavy hand. One evening Eddie sits at home, ‘dusk falling blue outside the windows, Brianne’s rum pleasantly clouding his thoughts, his daughters nudging him like kittens. Ellington on the radio, the month’s rent paid; things could be worse – were worse for many a man in the dregs of 1934.’ There are ‘gats’ and ‘rods’; Anna (aka ‘toots’) has seen Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface and Citizen Kane; The Glass Key is in cinemas; there’s talk of Gary Cooper, Veronica Lake, Joan Fontaine. There are egg creams, charlottes russes and clams casino. Agnes and Eddie’s sister Brianne once danced in the Follies, and Agnes now works as a part-time seamstress, trimming ‘sequinned toques’. Ordinary New Yorkers ride trolleys and the IND, a precursor of the subway, while made men drive new Cadillacs. At times, the quantity of information approaches Melvillean didacticism. Extensive descriptions of diving – the crushing burden of the ‘dress’, the dangers of going down and coming up, the difficulty of working underwater – start to weigh down an otherwise nimble narrative. And in the second half of the novel, the narrator uses explanatory asides so inconsistent with the overall voice that they seem like authorial notes rather than a distancing device: ‘African golf, as craps were known’, ‘a jammed screw – as propellers were known’, ‘Mae Wests, as life vests were affectionately known’, ‘former able-bodied seamen who became officers – “hawsepipers”, as they were known’.
Sometimes the novel departs from strict verisimilitude, and in this respect it is less of a conventional historical novel than it at first appears. ‘To fix the cadences of the time in her ear’, Schwartz tells us, Egan ‘watched noir movies and read Damon Runyon, Raymond Chandler and Harold Q. Masur’. Manhattan Beach is itself a crime story, and, to its credit, a self-reflexive one. The question of what happened to Eddie Kerrigan drives the plot, leading Anna into the underworlds her father inhabited as a union boss’s lackey, and later as Dexter Styles’s ‘ombudsman’. When Anna first runs into Dexter, at one of his nightclubs, one of his henchmen tries to shoo her away. ‘You’re turning into a bad habit, baby,’ he tells her when she returns to the impresario’s table. ‘Scram.’ Anna gives Dexter a false name, afraid of revealing the connection to her father. Shortly afterwards, but before they become further entangled, she reflects on the noirish turn in her life:
In the two weeks since she’d encountered the nightclub owner, her imagination had begun tiptoeing into dire, thrilling scenarios. Suppose her father hadn’t left home at all. Suppose he’d been obliterated by a hail of gangland bullets, Anna’s name on his dying lips like ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane? She read an awful lot of Ellery Queens. The winnowing of diffuse danger to a single corrupt soul had always been an inexhaustible pleasure for Anna. Now her own life seemed to have tipped into the world of those mysteries; the long November shadows leaned suggestively, and the sheen of streetlight on Naval Yard brick sent an ominous ripple through her belly. There was dynamism in this new foreboding, a stinging vitality, as if she’d wakened from drugged sleep.
A character thinking about what it would be like to be in a moody crime story when she is in fact in a moody crime story: it’s gimmicky, but that seems to be the point. Usually a plain Jane, one night Anna dresses up to go out with a former boss from the Navy Yard. She wears a ‘strapless dress of sea-green satin’, ‘silver faux-satin gloves that reached her elbows’, ‘a small round hat to match the dress’, costume pearls and make-up. When she looks in the mirror, she laughs at her ‘disguise’. (A friend had told her that she ‘could be a spy or a detective’.) That night, she again encounters Dexter, who still does not know she is Eddie’s daughter. ‘“You look different,” he said softly. “In green.” “That’s why I wore it,” she said.’ (Anna, whose directness usually makes her ‘no good’ at flirting, has come a long way.) From there, things get messy, as any detective novel would have it.
Historical fiction is never just that: it also tells us – or ought to – something about what the time it re-creates means, or could mean, today. Egan has told interviewers that she started the research for Manhattan Beach just after 9/11. ‘It made me think about the trajectory of American global power,’ she told the New York Times, ‘and wonder about the future of that trajectory, but also, wonder about the past of it: World War Two.’ So what does Manhattan Beach tell us about this?
For Anna, the isolated people she sees while walking round the city ‘had been shaken loose’ by the war. ‘And now she, too, had been shaken loose.’ Dexter’s father-in-law, Arthur Berringer, a banker and stiff society man who regularly gathers his son and sons-in-law to discuss political matters, delivers a prediction about American power in the postwar order: ‘I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever … our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.’ Dexter is stirred by Berringer’s predictions. ‘I want to be an honest part of what comes next,’ he tells his father-in-law, ‘not a leech sucking blood off its back.’ Soon Dexter, the son of immigrants, realises, in a moment of satisfaction, that ‘what he was trying so hard to do, he’d already done! He was American!’
It’s difficult to figure out what Egan is trying to say here about the war or its relation to the present. It serves as a dim backdrop to the characters’ dilemmas and insights, but in the way any war could – the Trojan War, say. In fact, the world of Manhattan Beach is strikingly Homeric, with hints of Virgil. The sea is so near and entrancing that New York City feels like a Greek archipelago. There are rules of hospitality: Dexter ‘rarely did business with any man before meeting his family,’ and anyone who shows up uninvited at his house on a Sunday and doesn’t bring his family ‘was doubly reckless to have broken rules that everyone in the shadow world knew like a catechism’. Anna finally makes herself known to him by announcing who her father is: ‘Edward Kerrigan. I think he might have worked for you.’ There’s even a visit to the underworld. Dexter, who’s had his moral epiphany, decides to help Anna by arranging for her to dive to the exact spot where her father died. In the middle of the night, they lift some diving equipment from the Navy Yard and anchor just off Staten Island, guided to the place Eddie was dumped by ‘Nestor, the helmsman’. After the dive, Anna cherishes her father’s pocket-watch, found on the harbour floor: ‘It was a relic from an underworld she’d visited once, under perilous conditions, purely in order to retrieve it.’ In fact, Eddie escaped, joined the merchant marines, and now, five years later, has been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa.
There is also something like prophecy in this watery tale. Anna, who realises that Lydia’s life lacks novelty, takes her, with Dexter’s help, to Manhattan Beach. He has brought his ‘spoiled’ daughter to see ‘the girls’ hard at work at the Navy Yard, and bumps into Anna. At this point, he still doesn’t know who she is, but agrees to chauffeur her and her ‘cripple’. On the beach, Lydia begins to speak (she had been echolalic before becoming near-mute): ‘The Landrace [blanket] fell from her face as she confronted the sea, lips moving, like a mythical creature whose imprecations could summon storms and winged gods, her wild blue eyes fixed on eternity.’ ‘See the sea. Sea the sea the sea the sea,’ she says. ‘Anna Papa Mama Liddy.’ As these words are spoken, Anna doesn’t try to make sense of them: she’s overjoyed that Lydia is talking, which she hasn’t done in ‘suchalontym’. (This slightly mawkish scene is the only part of Manhattan Beach that might be called ‘formally inventive’, as it moves between Anna and Lydia and the way each of them speaks and hears.) Lydia’s speech becomes meaningful later, as Eddie lies stranded on a raft, near death:
For the first time, the only time, the crime of his abandonment assailed Eddie, and he cried out ‘Lydia! Liddy!’, his harsh choked voice shocking him as he groped for the child he had abandoned – the family he had abandoned.
Eddie lay stricken, Lydia’s name like a coin in his mouth. Then a light, wafting sound filled his ears, a voice he dimly remembered – not Anna’s … but one that spoke in a bubbling, giddy rush, a lolloping prattle like the chattering cheerful nonsense of birdsong.
The mythopoeic both enriches and confuses Manhattan Beach by expanding it beyond its setting – war becomes War, quest becomes Quest. The Invisible Circus, Egan’s first novel, stays grounded in history. In 1978, 18-year-old Phoebe O’Connor, obsessed by the death of her charismatic hippie sister eight years earlier, retraces the sister’s steps through Europe, all the way to the cliff in Italy she jumped off. Parts of The Invisible Circus take place in the 1960s, but always as remembrance, whether Phoebe’s gauzy memories of family life or the recollections of the sister’s ex-boyfriend, whom Phoebe runs into in Munich, of the era’s social and political idealism and fallout. The recent past is already fabled. Egan was looking back from the early 1990s, and the story seems refracted through the sharp decline from the buoyancy of the Reagan years. (This may be projection: Egan drafted that book prior to Black Monday; she finished it in the early 1990s.)
But while The Invisible Circus addresses the making of eras, Manhattan Beach is vaguer about its own undertaking. It may be less ‘inventive’ than A Visit from the Goon Squad, but several reviewers thought that ‘many readers will find it more satisfying.’ Most of these readers will not have been alive in the 1930s or 1940s, but the novel’s re-creation of New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, will probably inspire wistfulness. Sections of the Navy Yard have been preserved, and in recent years revitalised, but the new businesses there make things like zillion-dollar lighting fixtures and fake subway signs. Last year, Admiral’s Row – stately houses once occupied by naval officers that had fallen into magnificent decay – was demolished to clear space for a development that will include a huge supermarket and a car park. Who can resist the romance of the bustling yard in a time of industry and righteousness? In this plot-driven page-turner about a period so important to Americans’ idea of themselves, Egan’s dearth of analysis almost passes without notice.