Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is her hugely successful follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. She is presently one hot literary property that (amongst many others) I need to catch up on. This is my first read of Egan and her first historical novel. That she is a superbly equipped writer is beyond question, what she does with her skills is another matter. For here is one of those novels so beloved by publishers that ‘straddles the literary and popular’, or more bluntly, it is very well written melodrama.
The book is mostly set in 1940s New York and the cast could well have come from the Hollywood studios of the day. Basically we follow the trials and tribulations of gutsy gorgeous Anna Kerrigan along with: her father, Ed, a plucky Paddy with the wind behind him and the road rising up to meet him (phenomenally lucky here even for an Irishman); her profoundly disabled sister, Lydia, an angel not long for this fallen world and possessing perhaps the gift of second sight; Anna’s lover, Dexter Styles (fabulous name), a glamorous gangster with a warm core within his cold casing. And so it goes with the deftly drawn supporting cast: molls with hearts, martinet bosses, working class salts-of-the-earth. Authenticity? Leave it to the schmucks in their ivory towers, the Bellows and the Malamuds. But you probably won’t be too worried about Egan working both sides of the street when you’re flicking the pages while the housework piles up, or snatching yet another chapter under the desk at work. For we have here the plot to match the characters, incredible, but for this reader, unputdownable.
It is an interesting experiment in its way. What happens when you take a story that is a mash up of noir and romantic (in the grand sense) and apply to it a high literary gloss? As I was reading I thought the technique might make the tale more believable. This didn’t happen, but what did happen was that the incredible story became incredibly vivid.
Like almost all American writers, Egan lives in Brooklyn and this is where events largely unfold, specifically, the vast Brooklyn shipyards during World War Two where Anna trains as a naval diver. Did I mention authenticity? Egan ballasts any lack of psychological complexity and motivation (dictated mostly by storyline) with a stunning display of historical data of all variety. Gene Kelly reputedly said that if an artist looks as if they’re working, then they’re not working hard enough. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was particularly dazzled towards the end on a merchant ship cruising the Atlantic in convoy. Alistair MacLean and Nicholas Monsarrat territory. Who knows what all this hardware is? Whoever did? That’s the point: a glimpse into an entire world you’ll never understand or be part of (because you’re just a kid) but can thrill to.
And since this is a thriller I won’t outline the plot except to say that I’m confident you will enjoy it. There are some standout scenes―the opening is particularly good―and in fact many of these scenes and plot twists you will anticipate, which strangely only seems to make them more readable when they inevitably occur. To be fair to Egan, there is originality in having such a masculine world seen from a female perspective. For example, the dangers and difficulties of a woman having an independent sexual life in the 1940s is not something that tends to pop up in Alistair MacLean. Also, the powerful underlying concept that a major historical upheaval, such as WWll, even though not fought on American soil, will necessarily upend the known world in ways one cannot predict, and so remake that world.
Still, at the close of the novel, if you join the dots together, you come up with an overarching viewpoint that is so corrupt and paranoid it makes internet conspirators look like David Hume. So my advice is don’t join the dots. When you crack the spine of Manhattan Beach, place your brain in neutral, and just dive in like our heroine.