Books

Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach

However differently Jennifer Egan writes from book to book, there’s a quality she transports between genres and styles, whether in her coming-of-age drama The Invisible Circus, her twisty Gothic genre spin The Keep, or her novel-in-stories about the music industry and time, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

This quality is something baked into the writing and it has to do with the relationship between characters and contexts – the way ordinary people, with more or less ordinary minds, match themselves against the dominant myths of their times. This is part of what makes A Visit from the Goon Squad a true novel: though the chapters range from an African safari to a near-future enamoured of PowerPoint slides, they’re linked by a sense that the stories we tell ourselves are not sufficient for understanding life, where each of us is coming from and especially where we’re going.

Owing to Goon Squad’s acclaim, substantial expectations accompany Manhattan Beach. It’s not the follow-up many readers new to her work will be looking for – they may find that in a previous book, the story collection Emerald City, which has the same intuitive, just-glimpsed quality as her prizewinning novel. Instead, Manhattan Beach is an entirely different kind of read. It’s a meat-and-potatoes historical novel, set in New York’s waterfront from the Depression to World War II, rich in detail and thick with plot; nothing is glimpsed quickly.

And yet it’s also perfectly Jennifer Egan, because that time and setting is ripe for matching characters and myths. Not only are the early myths of the 20th century being broken, but many competing myths are provisionally piling up. When confronted with a romance, a friendship or a job, characters want to know whether the centre will hold, at a time when the world is changing so fast that everybody seems to always have a sense that what they choose to invest in, emotionally, spiritually and professionally, will be very important to where they’ll be for the rest of their lives.

It’s the story of 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, whom we meet in the Depression on a mission with her dad – a bag-man, whose job is to convey materials and money “between men who should not rightly associate”. Today, he’s on his way to meet Dexter Styles, a man who lives on Manhattan Beach and can recall its grander past. Styles has a flash of profound connection with Anna, somewhat buried under the deep connection between the girl and her father. Anna worships her father, while in his conception, she “might as well have been a boy: dust in her stockings … a scrap, a weed that would thrive anywhere, survive anything”.

They are allied in many quiet ways against her mother and her sister, Lydia, who is disabled in a manner that requires constant care, disturbing Anna’s father. Locked inside her body, barely able to communicate, Lydia becomes the novel’s damaged, beautiful, silent keeper, guiding the characters forward and sometimes standing in their way.

After this period, we meet Anna again in her early 20s, when the war has begun, and her father has disappeared. His departure some time in the past few years is unexpected, given how perfectly close they were, but enough time has passed for the shock to have abated, and life is being lived.

For the rest of the book Anna comes into her own while everything around her changes, not least the options for women in a wartime economy. Much of the interesting historical work is around Anna’s efforts to train as a diver repairing warships, and in doing so, reaching something important and dangerous outside herself: “There was something primally familiar about the diving suit,” she thinks, “as if from a dream or a myth.” In this world, all myths are available, and all are contestable – is Anna finding new ways to understand herself, or seeking those she’s lost, including some who may have disappeared with her father?

Although Anna is surrounded by social revolutionaries both outspoken and covert, many of them other women, Anna is never clear how the risks she takes in this wartime society will be received. Her attitudes towards sex and her underworld attempts to solve her father’s disappearance come to seem as dangerous as her diving work. As one character tells her, “A reputation lasts. It floats and follows you. It can interfere when you least expect, and there’s no way to erase it. After the war, the world will be small again. Everyone will know everything, just like before.”

But for now the world is deep with secrets, and it’s only deepened when Anna comes back into contact with Dexter, the man she met with her father on that long-ago beach. Styles is a racketeer whose business is nearly – but not so nearly – legal. He is a skilful operator of the secret world, knowing especially where it intersects with the legitimate world and where it doesn’t. He is also somehow involved in the disappearance of Anna’s father, and, in the way that wars make it possible to move between different social spheres, it becomes possible for Anna to investigate the disappearance.

The past is a problem for Dexter, who’s really a holdover from the Depression years. He understands that moving beyond his dangerous lifestyle is mandatory once the war is over – the alternative is a violent end, so precarious is the success he’s created. Parts of his story will be familiar to Goon Squad readers, which was all about the quiet violence of what this novel calls “the treachery of middle life”. One character points out that Dante went to hell to escape it; for the rest of us, there are only hard choices.

But Egan takes us far afield. The book is a true romp, and includes a section about survival at sea that would make many much-vaunted 20th-century American writers envious. It’s a sprawling novel powered by chance; a historical novel rendered beautifully.  CR

Corsair, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 30, 2017 as "Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR