In Egan’s capable hands, an extraordinary jewel is unearthed from all-too-familiar ground.
For the epigraph to her magnificent new novel, Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan chooses a line from Moby-Dick that describes the elemental relationship, the marriage, between mankind and the roiling, wine-dark sea: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” It’s a spiritual observation, one she explores by way of latticed crosscurrents and literal depths, maybe not with Melville’s solemnity, but with an equal penchant for the sublime. Manhattan Beach is, at its heart, a maritime tale. The ocean, as the clichéd critical trope goes, is a non-human character in Egan’s rich and fully realized cast, omnipresent and looming.
Manhattan Beach opens in its titular Brooklyn neighborhood during the Great Depression. Here Egan introduces her three protagonists: the quietly independent and whip-smart Anna Kerrigan, aged 11; Anna’s father Eddie, a midlevel union racketeer; and Dexter Styles, a sympathetic gangster who longs for legitimacy. As a trio, their paths cross for the first and last time during the novel’s inaugural chapter. Once established, their trajectories are flung outward following this meeting, only to intersect in two-person permutations throughout Manhattan Beach. But their zigzagging connections lay the foundation for Egan’s tale of tragedy, redemption and (in Anna’s case) something close to triumph.
The bulk of Manhattan Beach unfolds after an early flash-forward to World War II. Anna, now a young adult, works as a civilian in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, first as an inspector, measuring parts for ships headed to battle, and later as a diver, repairing their underwater surfaces. Her father, who vanished (perhaps intentionally) five years earlier, left Anna alone with her mother Agnes, a Ziegfeld Follies alum, and younger sister Lydia, an invalid who suffers from a degenerative disorder. The why of Eddie’s disappearance nags at Anna and remains the novel’s central mystery.
Manhattan Beach has been described as a noir thriller, and that’s halfway true. Though it borrows heavily from On the Waterfront-style gangland stories, and much of it takes place at night, it also liberally weaves in elements from workplace procedurals, seafaring adventure tales (particularly Treasure Island and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and soapy melodramas. Egan toggles between these disparate tones and styles with a singular authorial voice. The result is both an engrossing yarn and a stunning literary achievement. Unlike the disjointed narrative of her Pulitzer-winning breakout A Visit from the Goon Squad, all the action occurs on the page, with each chapter building methodically on the last with a forward thrust that reaches a climax so inevitable and satisfying that only on reflection do you realize it’s a bit too pat.
The big surprise here is how much of a hard turn toward conventionality Manhattan Beach is compared to the somersaulting flourishes of Goon Squad. All for the better. Both novels present a particular, fully realized world—the modern music industry with Goon Squad, WWII-era New York City with Manhattan Beach. The latter universe is richly imagined, painstakingly sketched and utterly fascinating. Egan began her research in 2004, interviewing still-living civilians who worked at the Navy Yard during the war. Her efforts show. Anna’s struggle (and ultimate success) with becoming a diver offers a peek into an underreported aspect of day-to-day, mundane life during wartime.
As Anna traverses New York City docks (on her own), Manhattan’s rollicking nightlife (by way of her Sally Bowles-inspired companion Nell) and the everyday impediments of adulthood (with Dexter Styles as her biggest hurdle), she emerges a feminist hero, not only a Rosie-the-Riveter-type icon, but a woman rendered in three dimensions. Like her counterparts in Goon Squad, she’s forced to reckon with time’s passage and the secrets exposed along the way. Egan’s prose mimics Anna’s evolution: what was straightforward and practical becomes intricate and lyrical. And so Manhattan Beach is, from multiple vantages, a humble journey, but elevated. Simplicity spirals and twists into complication, often leading to the discovery of hidden treasures. In Egan’s capable hands, an extraordinary jewel is unearthed from all-too-familiar ground.