A third of the way through Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach, a young woman named Anna Kerrigan enlists Dexter Styles, a charismatic nightclub owner and racketeer, to drive her and her severely disabled sister, Lydia, to the seashore at the edge of Brooklyn. Lydia, who cannot walk or feed herself, and who rarely leaves her family’s cramped apartment, has never seen the ocean, and Anna allows herself to hope that the experience might arrest her sister’s decline and jolt her out of her growing detachment from the loving domestic life around her. Dexter’s palatial house abuts a private beach, and he and Anna carry Lydia, swaddled in an imported blanket from his linen closet and propped up in a specially designed chair, to the edge of the water. It’s 1942, and in the distance a passenger ship sails by, presumably transporting troops to Europe.
Dexter owns several popular clubs and illegal casinos around New York City. As he and Anna chat about his profitable involvement in the war effort—“keeping the brass amused and easing the pain of rationing”—Lydia’s eyes blink open, and she begins to babble. “The change in the crippled girl was extraordinary. He’d found her sprawled unconscious, as if she’d been dropped from a height, but now she sat up independently, holding her head away from the stand.” Lydia’s awakening is so affecting that only later do we realize what a challenge it must have been for the writer to make it not only dramatic but plausible and persuasive.
It couldn’t have been easy, arranging for the salt air and pounding surf to work a near miracle, to make a mute girl speak, or almost speak, and not send the story plummeting into bathos. Egan succeeds with a combination of psychological acuity and technical virtuosity: she complicates the scene at the beach so that Lydia’s remission—which, we sense, will be limited and brief—is only one of the things holding our attention. We’re equally, if not more, engaged by the motives and secrets that have brought Anna and Dexter to this stretch of sand. Events—and their consequences—conspire to reveal what the characters don’t know about one another and about themselves, what they are willing to admit and what they would rather keep hidden.
Dexter is unaware, for example, that he and Anna have met before. When she was eleven, her father, Eddie, took her to play with Dexter’s daughter on this same beach while the two men talked business. Anna’s response to that visit, and to her own first sight of the ocean, will resonate eerily throughout the novel:
Anna watched the sea. There was a feeling she had, standing at its edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all that water should suddenly vanish? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm drain. Dead bodies, her father always added, with a laugh. To him, the ocean was a wasteland.
Anna is too young to understand that her father makes his living as Dexter’s “bagman”—“the sap who ferried something (money, of course, but it wasn’t his business to know) between men who should not rightly associate.” It’s Eddie’s job to deliver bribes, collect pay-offs, and keep an eye on the employees at Dexter’s casinos. While her father and Dexter confer, Anna plays out her own drama. Stubborn and appealingly proud, she rejects the proffered gift of a doll that the gangster’s daughter no longer plays with—and that she desperately wants.
During the decade separating Anna’s two trips to Dexter’s private beach, Eddie has vanished, leaving her responsible for her mother and Lydia. Anna thinks that Dexter may have clues to the mystery of who her father was and why he disappeared.
Helping Lydia and Anna, meanwhile, flatters Dexter’s vanity, and the good deed allows him to see himself as a hero. He turns down an invitation to have lunch and play billiards with his patrician father-in-law, whom he likes and admires, because he has made a promise to Anna, whom he recently met at one of his nightclubs. He’s not ready to admit that he finds her attractive, but it’s not entirely accidental that he brings her and her sister to his house when his wife and children are away. His tangled emotions, as well as their conversation about the war effort, inspire a new—and ultimately unhelpful—surge of idealism and patriotic high-mindedness that Dexter attempts to put into practice when he meets with his boss, the ruthless gangland kingpin known as Mr. Q. This depiction of the ways in which love, even when it’s unconscious, can briefly make one a more generous and noble person recalls the moment in Anna Karenina when Vronsky, who has just met Tolstoy’s heroine on the train, impulsively gives money to the family of the railroad guard killed on the tracks.
Typically, Egan layers her characters with contradictions and complexities. In the brilliant A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) a spiky, sympathetic kleptomaniac named Sasha has such overwhelming empathy for the elderly plumber fixing a leak in her apartment that she can cope with her feelings only by stealing the old man’s screwdriver. The heroine of Look at Me (2001) has an ability to see beneath the most meticulously groomed and cultivated exteriors to glimpse “the nagging, flickering presence” of “the shadow selves” of those around her—“that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly from certain bad photographs.”
No one in Manhattan Beach, however, has emotional X-ray vision. Indeed much of the plot is propelled by the characters’ faulty or partial understanding of one another and of how profoundly their friends, relatives, allies, and enemies have been shaped by the social and political history of the era and the borough—Brooklyn—in which much of the novel is set.
Some writers stake out an area of fictional territory—Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England, Mavis Gallant’s Paris—and find riches enough there to mine for a lifetime. Jennifer Egan is of the other sort: she is a novelist whose work keeps taking her (and the reader) to new places. Each of her books is, at least on the surface, very different from the rest. A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, considers, among other subjects, the mystery of time, the 1970s punk music scene in San Francisco, the coming global water shortage, psychotherapy, and the travails of a public relations agent hired to improve a dictator’s image.
Look at Me follows three parallel, suspenseful stories until they come together in a disastrous collision: an injured heroine’s pilgrimage as a model through the brittle milieu of haute couture; the painful education of an intelligent, disaffected high school girl; and the journey, from New Jersey to Illinois, of a mysterious foreigner who may or may not be an Islamist terrorist. Set in a shadowy Eastern European castle with underground caverns and tunnels, The Keep (2006) is a modern take on an old-fashioned Gothic thriller, suffused with the pleasant creepiness of a vintage horror film.
One of the elements that joins these seemingly dissimilar novels in a single sensibility is that they are all cinematic. In fact Egan’s fictions usually conjure a quite specific film genre. Manhattan Beach combines 1940s noir—movies in which James Cagney and George Raft play gangsters in impeccable overcoats and snappy fedoras—with historical documentary about the New York waterfront and the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The book’s settings—from a swanky speakeasy to a train station swarming “with soldiers carrying identical brown duffels” to a lifeboat filled with shipwrecked, desperately thirsty sailors—feel remembered from films seen long ago.
Yet another thread uniting Egan’s novels is the unusual compression and density of her writing. The brief mini-narratives she uses to illuminate a character are so fully developed that another author might see, in each one, enough for an entire novel. We learn a lot about Dexter from his response to—and his memory of—a casual affair that had begun when a woman he met on a train tapped on the door of his first-class sleeper in the middle of the night:
They disembarked that afternoon in Angel, Indiana, intending—what? Intending to continue. They checked into a grand old hotel near the station as Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Immediately, Dexter felt a change: now that the bleak winter landscape was all around him, rather than sliding picturesquely past, he liked it less. Other irritants followed: a sudden dislike of her perfume; a sudden dislike of her laugh, the dry pork chop he was served in the hotel restaurant, a cobweb dangling from the light fixture above the bed. After making love, she fell into a torporous sleep. But Dexter lay awake, listening to the howling dogs, or was it wolves, wind clattering the loose windowpanes. Everything he knew seemed irrevocably distant: Harriet, his children, the business he’d been charged to transact for Mr. Q.—too far gone for him ever to reclaim them. He felt how easily a man’s life could slip away, separated from him by thousands of miles of empty space.
Other passages convey elusive sensations in an unforgettable way. At a Manhattan nightclub, Anna enjoys her first taste of champagne:
The pale gold potion snapped and frothed in her glass. When she took a sip, it crackled down her throat—sweet but with a tinge of bitterness, like a barely perceptible pin inside a cushion.
Egan’s gift for metaphor is evident throughout, as in this snapshot of the nefarious Mr. Q.:
He was hulking and cavernous at once, browned to mahogany. Time had enlarged him in an organic, mineral way, like a tree trunk, or salts accreting in a cave. The frailty of his advanced age showed itself in the silty, tidal labors of his breath.
Here, as in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Look at Me, Egan opts for a panoramic and multifaceted plot divided into subplots that dovetail at critical junctures. The architecture of the novel is built on dramatic set pieces and deceptively minor details that will turn out to be important. She relies on us to remember objects and incidents—a pocket watch, a piece of jewelry, a bicycle, a street address, the name of a first love—from an earlier appearance (sometimes hundreds of pages back) in the novel. And we do recall them, with a pleasurable pop of recognition, the sense of things having come together that was among the rewards of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Like that novel and Look at Me, Manhattan Beach aims to get the broadest possible cross-section of the world—or a certain corner of the world at a certain time—onto the printed page. Populated by characters from a range of social classes, all of them navigating by wildly divergent moral compasses, Manhattan Beach takes us from the exclusive Rockaways country club where Dexter’s father-in-law holds court to the Kerrigans’ tenement apartment where Anna and Lydia share a room. Anna’s career begins in the machine shop at the Naval Yard where she painstakingly measures, with a micrometer, parts for battleships. Eventually she winds up exploring the depths of Wallabout Bay when—against the objections of almost all her male bosses and coworkers—she is promoted from her tedious measuring job to become the Naval Yard’s first female diver.
Dressed in a cripplingly heavy diving suit (“The dress weighs two hundred pounds. The hat alone weighs fifty-six. The shoes together are thirty-five”), Anna sets foot on the bottom of the bay and feels
a rush of well-being whose source was not instantly clear… Then she realized: the pain of the dress had vanished. The air pressure from within it was just enough to balance the pressure from outside while maintaining negative buoyancy… This was like flying, like magic—like being inside a dream.
On land and underwater, Anna is a rare fictional creation in that she is a woman driven by desires—lust, altruism, competition, the impulse to do what the men around her insist she can’t do—without invoking the writer’s judgment. Wisely, Manhattan Beach doesn’t spend much time exploring the reasons why Anna wants to become a diver, but we may wonder about her unconscious motives. Eventually, her expertise takes the story on a decisive turn toward a conciliatory and satisfying, if not ecstatically happy, ending.
Egan’s readers may miss the sparkle of sly wit that glinted in her previous work, novels in which chic (or aspirationally chic) New Yorkers eat at a restaurant called Raw Feed, frequent a nightclub named Jello, and say “Trauma upsets the hair.” In Manhattan Beach, one occasionally feels that Egan is so determined to get the facts and details right that she can’t allow herself (and us) to have quite as much fun.
Writers of historical fiction rightly fear the mistake that will lose the confidence and trust of the knowledgeable reader. Recently, watching a British TV series set in the 1950s, I was distracted from a crucial conversation two characters were having by the nagging thought that the teensy, precious arrangements of food on their plates would have been more typical of restaurants in the 1990s. Nothing in Manhattan Beach distracts in this way.
If Manhattan Beach has flaws, perhaps they can be traced to the acknowledgments section: several pages of thanks to those who helped with the research that went into the novel. The profusion of vintage brand names, radio programs, comic strips, songs, and slang phrases can seem more than strictly necessary to provide a sense of authenticity. Eager to learn what happens next, we may find ourselves skimming passages like this one, which occurs as Anna prepares to make an illicit dive that may finally disclose her father’s fate:
It was a Morse Air Pump No. 1, identical to the compressors at the Naval Yard. They had anchored it to the bow, and now they cleaned its air reservoirs, oiled the piston rods, and lubricated the pump shaft handles with a mixture of oil and graphite. They’d had surprisingly little trouble removing a pair of diving crates from the Naval Yard—each containing a two-hundred-pound dress—along with six fifty-foot lengths of air hose, a loaded tool bag, two diving knives, and a spare-parts tin.
Doubtless there are readers who enjoy obtaining information from novels, while others may be more impatient to learn what Anna is about to discover underwater. In any case such moments are few in this ambitious, compassionate, engrossing book. Finishing Manhattan Beach is like being expelled from a world that—despite the horrors of the war being fought in the background, despite the occasional gangster drugged and dumped into the sea—seems more charitable and reasonable and less chaotic than the one in which we live now.