Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach

About midway through Jennifer Egan’s fifth and latest novel, Manhattan Beach, I had an overwhelming urge to flip ahead to the Acknowledgements section – a first for me, in my entire life as a reader. This is a historical novel, you see, set on the docks of Manhattan during the Second World War, and recreating that time period – the costumes, the speech, the manners and mores, the nautical terms – required a great deal of research. She consulted historians, naturally, and a great deal of reference material, as writers of historical fiction are wont to do, but she went even further, befriending tug-boat operators, army divers, naval librarians – anyone who could give her insight into dock life in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, her bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad was born in this time period, written casually as a way to distract herself from the constant research she was doing for Manhattan Beach. Her efforts are evidenced on every page, and help to transport the readers to a time both foreign and familiar, when the healthy, able-bodied men were abroad, fighting a war, and women entered the previously male-dominated world of factories and naval yards, doing their part to advance the war effort.

Egan’s protagonist is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet when she is just eleven years old, accompanying her father to the lavish seaside home of a wealthy nightclub owner and gangster, Dexter Styles – though why her working-class father should be making such an errand, we are not told. At first, she is left in the basement of the home, with the nanny and young children of Styles, where she encounters an abundance of toys beyond her wildest imagination. The aptly named Great Depression, which left a quarter of the American public unemployed, and reduced many to begging, has seemingly left Dexter Styles untouched, the demand for sex and liquor being obviously inelastic. It’s here, in this basement, that we get our first insights into Anna’s character. Though she covets the expensive Flossie Flirt doll belonging to Dexter’s daughter, she wills herself to ignore its charms, choosing to sit with two young boys flummoxed by a model train track. “She could feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips,” Egan tells us; “this came so naturally that she could only think that other people didn’t really try.” Those attuned to the contemporary nature-vs-nurture debate will know that a great deal of stock is put into the kinds of toys boys and girls play with, and Egan is telling us – in unsubtle terms – that our protagonist is both dexterous and mechanically inclined. Another prophetic moment occurs shortly after, when Dexter and Anna’s father are walking along the beach, and discover her, barefoot, standing in the icy Atlantic waters. “Each foot delivered an agony of sensation to her heart, one part of which was a flame of ache that felt unexpectedly pleasant.” The sea is one of our oldest and most enduring obsessions, no doubt because of its dual nature: it is the source of all life, and therefore generative, but also the very embodiment of elemental nature, wild and impenetrable, mysterious in its depths. Her small act of courage, braving the cold waters, presages a future decision she will make – to again brave the sea – upon which the entire plot hinges.

After this brief opening chapter, the book skips ahead eight years. America is emerging from the Depression, but recoiling from the preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. Anna is now 19, working in a factory in the naval yard doing menial assembly work, but her father has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, without taking any clothes or possessions, and leaving behind him a secret bank account that helps sustain Anna, her mentally retarded sister, and their mother. His disappearance haunts Anna:

Her father had left the apartment as he would have on any day – she couldn’t even recall it. The truth had arrived gradually, like nightfall: a recognition, when she caught herself awaiting his return, that she’d waited days, then weeks, then months – and he’d still not come. She was fourteen, then fifteen. Hope became the memory of hope: a numb, dead patch. She no longer could picture him clearly.

Deep down, beneath conscious thought, Anna knows that there is some connection between her father’s visit to the home of a known gangster, Dexter Styles, and his disappearance, and some part of her believes she already knows his fate: he was almost certainly murdered, his body tied to a concrete block and sunk in the harbor. This hateful thought, together with an abiding fascination with the sea, compel her to seek employment as a diver, the most dangerous position available in the navy yard, and to reconnect with Styles, in the hope of finally learning of her father’s fate. Thus we have murder and intrigue, added to our already compelling historical setting, and Egan paces her novel so expertly that the accompany side plots – the family and professional lives of Dexter styles, say, or the experiences of a black diver and naval officer during the war – don’t slow the reader’s progression through the book but give weight to the historical setting.

Egan tells her novel through shifting perspectives – those of Anna, her father, and Dexter Styles – but it is Anna’s perspective that dominates, and therefore also Anna with whom the reader identifies. We are privy to her adolescent love affair, the gossip she must endure from her female coworkers when their male boss takes a special liking to her, and the condescending sexism of her diving officer. She is the beating heart of Egan’s novel, our window into a different era, and every bit as compelling as the story Egan weaves around her.