Manhattan Beach feels acutely relevant despite being set in the past.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 433 pages, $28.
By Ed Meek
Good writers do not write the same book over and over again; they take on new challenges. Jennifer Egan, known for the inventiveness that garnered a Pulitzer Prize for her A Visit From the Good Squad, takes on a more traditional genre, the historical novel, in her latest book, which is based on research set in the 1930s and ’40s. The narration draws on third person omniscient, making use of the point of view of a number of different characters. She also moves freely back and forth in time. A little patience is required of the reader — she is adept at withholding crucial information — because the plot doesn’t really kick into high gear until over half way through the story
Manhattan Beach is mostly set in New York and focuses primarily on Anna, who grows from adolescence to adulthood, and her enigmatic father, whose fate takes a disastrous turn when, during the Depression, he is forced to become involved with the underworld after loses his legit job. Although the novel is set over 80 years ago, Anna is a protagonist who would fit right into our girl-power era. From a young age (her voice doesn’t quite sound credible at the beginning) she is a force — independent, smart, and tough-minded. She becomes the first female diver for the Merchant Marines, who are called on to help the Navy during the war effort. Diving, in those days, meant wearing two hundred pounds of equipment and was considered a job only males could do. Of course, her diving takes on multiple symbolic qualities: the ocean holds the answers to her questions — if she is willing to take of risk of diving into the unknown.
Anna, who has a practical, hands-on approach to tasks, is well-suited for the challenging work of diving to high-pressure depths as well as addressing the mechanical problems of Navy ships. Despite her early feminism, she inhabits a much different cultural era, a time when women were primarily seen as caregivers, expected to give up careers once motherhood arrived. Anna’s mother stops working and stays home to care for Anna and her severely disabled sister.
Meanwhile, Anna’s father, Eddie, the other principle character in the novel, finds himself in a Jean Valjean situation when he is laid off from his waterfront job and has to find a way to support his family. He goes to work as a bagman for a corrupt childhood friend who trusts him because Eddie saved him from drowning as a child. Ironically, it is when Eddie tries to do right (as is the case with the other characters in this story) that he runs into trouble. His efforts bring him into contact with a shady nightclub owner — the appropriately named Dexter Styles — who, in addition to running a vast network of criminal enterprises, is ambitious enough to marry a wealthy socialite girl.
Styles is a compelling figure who fulfills Gatsby’s dream of accumulating wealth and marrying up. Yet he finds, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me.” Nick in The Great Gatsby is more specific:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Egan makes a similar accusation about class in Manhattan Beach. Dexter marries into wealth, but he is never welcome at the club. Like Gatsby, he will never be one of “them.” In addition, it will come as no surprise to those of us living in the time of the Koch brothers, Citizens United, Wall Street, the Trump family, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the Clintons, that those in positions of wealth and power are as corrupt as the criminals targeted by the police and the FBI. As Balzac observed: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.”
So Manhattan Beach feels relevant despite being set in the past. Also, Egan is particularly efficient at conjuring up distinctive voices for her various characters. Here she channels the self-consciously retrograde thoughts of Dexter, who is giving our girl Anna a ride home. He respects the much younger Anna as “an intelligent person” who “intrigued him…
And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car—this smart, modern girl with correct values joined to the war effort…and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her…He was also thinking this was the problem of men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck the women. Men said, ‘Girls are weak’ when in fact, girls made them weak.
This point of view offers a refreshing contribution to our current discussion regarding the evolving roles of males and females as well as the problems of sexual harassment.
Egan is able to create coherence in the novel by drawing on a metaphor to dramatize the difficulties that entangle her characters. In one key scene, Anna unties a knot: the action serves as a signal that she will deal with any Gordian knot she encounters.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.