An Investigation into Fate and Freedom: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
As Joni Mitchell famously pointed out, “No one ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint The Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it, and that was it.” Here, the legendary shape-shifting musician was calling out critics and fans who expect more of the same from artists they admire. So as a long time Joni Mitchell acolyte, why was I briefly disconcerted by the richly enchanting Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s first novel since 2010’s A Visit from the Goon Squad?
One answer would certainly be the built-up anticipation for Egan’s next work in the wake of Goon Squad’s big-time awards (Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle) and dizzying praise from critics. Or the fact that seven years in today’s publishing culture is a significant length of time. But I think the key to my surprise at Manhattan Beach—which quickly shaded into pure enjoyment—is the straightforward quality of its narrative. I took an informal poll of friends who’d read Goon Squad (I couldn’t find anyone who hadn’t) to ask what they remembered of the novel. Almost all of them cited “the PowerPoint chapter.” Or the futuristic science fiction chapter, where characters wear embedded devices and communicate in abbreviated texting-type style. They also spoke about the jumps in character perspective and in time. How you’d become accustomed to one character’s storyline—Bennie Salazar as an aging punk record exec, or Dolly, PR rep to a South American war criminal—only to have it whisked from you in the next section, as the novel spirals around its theme of how time works us over, even in the miraculous digital age. “Time’s a goon,” as one character puts it.
But while Goon Squad makes memorable use of striking formal experimentation, the more traditional storytelling in Manhattan Beach is no less compelling an investigation into fate and freedom.
Opening scenes are set in Depression-era Brooklyn, where eleven-year-old Anna Kerrigan tags along with her nervous mob fixer father, Eddie, on a business visit to the sea-side house owned by Dexter Styles. We stay with Eddie’s perspective for a few chapters, as he struggles between a rock (earning enough to support his family) and a hard place (signing on to work for crime boss Styles). Added to Eddie’s financial hardship is the family’s strain to properly care for Lydia, Anna’s older sister, who is disabled. But soon the narrative surges forward to Anna as a nineteen-year-old, bereft by her father’s stunning abandonment and now responsible for carrying the weight of her family’s survival by working as a machinist in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.
Here Manhattan Beach widens into a fascinating portrait of this legendary war-time shipyard, where thousands of workers strained to build and launch the destroyers that could beat back the German U-boats. For the first time, women joined the industrial effort, working side by side with men in jobs they had never been allowed to hold. They stand in long lines to give blood, they buy boxed lunches at the canteen for forty cents, and they labor behind gloves and face shields: “Girls holding blowtorches. Girls cutting metal into pieces; girls building molds of ship parts from wood. A matter-of-factness about even the pretty ones; look or don’t look.” Despite these new freedoms, Anna and the others suffer daily indignities of catcalls and discrimination.
To escape her cramped work station at Building 4 during her lunch break, Anna often borrows a bicycle to swoop along the endless docks. When she rides near a hulking ship in a dry dock, it is a “sudden towering apparition” and she has to “tip her head fully back to follow the curved prow all the way up to the distant deck.” The global immensity of war in its physical manifestation is tangibly present here, as is an ambiguous correlation: men and women, so tiny in the face of these enormous warships, are the ones who made them—piece by metal piece, like the ones Anna sorts on her tray for hours each day. The Naval Yard as a world of its own, with its rules and hierarchies, is one of Manhattan Beach’s signal accomplishments. Anna pedals madly through the buildings, past flirtatious sailors and welders and towering ships, because she is fascinated by the place, and her aliveness there is in stark contrast to the grim difficulties of life at home.
One day Anna sees divers on the barge at Pier C, geared in the era’s fantastically heavy suits and globular helmets, and knows instantly—in her deepest awareness—that this is something she must do. But getting through the male-dominated military chain of command is nearly impossible. She is mock-tested in a grueling, humiliating trial where two “tenders” put her into the full diving dress—which weighs over two hundred pounds. The last part—when they lower the round brass helmet over her head—is the worst:
Then she was inside, encased in a humid metallic smell that was almost a taste. They screwed the base of the helmet into the breastplate like a lightbulb fitting into a socket. A crushing weight bore down upon Anna through the collar’s sharp edges. She writhed under it, trying to move away or unseat it. There were two raps on top of the helmet, and the round front window popped open, admitting a shock of cool air. Greer was there. “You must tell us if you feel faint,” he said.
But Anna withstands every obstacle and finally is allowed the chance to lower herself into the underwater world of ship repair, becoming the first female diver. These scenes are tightly physical, with palpable dangers everywhere: air lines that could be cut or twisted, blood bubbles that might rise to the brain, swirling sand that clouds direction.
Alongside the story of Anna’s diving is the story of why Eddie disappeared, and what happened to him. A chance meeting with Dexter Styles at one of his nightclubs brings Anna into contact with him, and the outer borough crime underworld he presides over. These sections of the novel introduce a love story that leads Anna to discover pieces of her father’s past. Vivid secondary characters throughout the novel demonstrate the tight grip crime families held on Brooklyn, and the way even one wrong social move—showing up unannounced at a boss’s home—could bring pain or worse. Egan thoroughly details the mob subculture, with its bone-deep “Wops” versus “Micks” hatreds, and although this is familiar material from movies, she makes it sting when it counts. The more Anna wants to know about her father, the more she has to be willing to get close to ugly sources of (male) power.
A few scenes—particularly one off-the-books dive—strain credibility, and threaten to pull us out of the fictive dream. In the last third of the novel, Anna’s home life obligations ease up with a suddenness that feels mainly convenient. But the aching final decisions she makes ring true to her character in that era. Everyone, no matter how strong or independent, is subject to forces like war, or time, or the claims of family. Underwater, a diver moves lightly and freely, but can never travel beyond the length of her descending line.