Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Scribner. 438 pp. ***1/2
I was wildly enthusiastic about Jennifer Egan’s previous novel, A Visit from the Good Squad. That book was aesthetically stunning, every chapter from a different point of view, a narrative that was wildly distorted in time, a set of characters that only vaguely related to one another over the course of their entire lives. The book crackled with energy, especially a chapter around the midway point where a long forgotten character reappeared. Goon Squad was as original as anything I’ve ever read. Manhattan Beach, I would have to say, doesn’t crackle. It is an accomplished novel. But I’m surprised in a way that these two books were written by the same person. It’s like knowing Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury and A Fable.
I have a friend—an extremely literate man, and a booklover—who abandoned Manhattan Beach partway through. I didn’t do that, and am glad I didn’t. But there was a point early on when I have to admit I was bogged down. Then the book engaged me.
The first chapter was magical, occupied front and center by a prescient child who banters with her father almost as if they were adults. Edward Kerrigan is going off to meet a business associate and is taking his daughter Anna along because he wants to have a child there; he wants that buffer. Anna plays with the daughter of the man they are meeting—his name is Dexter Styles, and the daughter’s is Tabatha—and they walk out on Manhattan Beach, but in the winter, when it is cold. Even so, Anna takes her shoes off to wade in the water—she’s showing off a little—and is astonished at how cold it is. It’s all she can do to keep her feet in. Tabatha has a pair of brothers, and Anna confesses to having a sister, and says to Tabatha, “She’s eight, like you, but she’s mean. Because of being so pretty. . . . Extremely pretty.”
One thing we’re aware of in this early scene is that this is a family of limited means—Anna covets a doll that Tabatha has all but forgotten, she has so many other things—encountering another that is extremely well off; Anna is given a glass of lemonade by a Negro servant. We’re also aware that something isn’t right between the two men, though we’re not sure what. We don’t know at that point that Styles is a gangster, and Eddie Kerrigan his bag man. The innocence of children hides us from what’s actually happening.
Anna’s sister is indeed pretty, but she’s also handicapped; she doesn’t have use of all her muscles and can’t speak, sometimes seems to loll around without understanding things. She didn’t get enough oxygen at birth, Anna says at one point; I assume Lydia has cerebral palsy. The novel bogged down for me in the midst of the scenes about the sister, and about a protracted scheme Anna has for getting her to see the ocean, actually, to get Dexter Styles to take her there. Anna is devoted to her sister. By the time Styles does that, Anna’s father has disappeared—he just doesn’t come home one day—and we don’t know why.
If we knew at that point how Anna’s life would eventually get tangled up with Styles, and what would eventually happen with him, and what we would learn about her father, we wouldn’t be tempted to abandon the novel. In that way the novel’s traditional chronology hampers it.
I should be issuing spoiler alerts as I speak of such things, and can’t go much further without spoiling the whole book. But the novel is set in the forties, smack in the middle of the Second World War, and as Anna gets older she helps the war effort, first by working in a factory, then—weirdly—by becoming a diver, a person who wore one of those big suits—which apparently weighed over 200 pounds—and a big helmet, and went to the bottom of the ocean to look for things, or went down to work on the hull of a ship. This was a time when women didn’t typically do that kind of work, and we see the prejudice Anna faces, which rings very true today. It’s also fascinating to read the details of this work, and the danger and physical difficulty it involved. Not since James Jones’ Go to the Widow Maker have I been so taken with life under the sea.
Goon Squad was roughly contemporary with Egan’s own life, but Manhattan Beach takes place long before she or I was born. It’s a book about Old New York, something I love to read about, and see in movies. But in a way I don’t understand why Egan was drawn to it, to the extent that she had to do so much research; her Acknowledgements are three pages long. She tries to make her characters speak the way folks did back then, particularly the way they used contractions. (We say, I have a headache. They said, I’ve a headache.) That stylistic tic eventually drove me batty. I suppose it’s accurate. I watch old movies too. But she wears it out.
When I look back on the plot Egan created, what actually happens in her story, I’m as impressed as I was by Goon Squad. The woman creates a great narrative. But somehow the telling this time wasn’t as interesting to me. It’s just as accomplished a novel. In a way it’s a more remarkable story. But it wasn’t as exciting. Hard to say why.
 I keep comparing Egan to Faulkner, which is ridiculous, especially because I haven’t read her other work. But the point of similarity here is how different the two books are that I’ve read. Faulkner seems to have regarded every new novel as a totally fresh experiment, as if he’d never written one before. He wrote with Beginner’s Mind.
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