In 2011 Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From The Goon Squad, a work of extraordinary talent and innovation. In that novel, Egan successfully combined a menagerie of novelistic traditions; from the fragmentation of modernism to the virtuosity of realism. In doing so, thousands of MFA students all over America wrote novels inspired by Egan’s own brand of interconnected stories conspiring for novelistic unity and commerciality.
Manhattan Beach, Egan’s long-anticipated follow up to her acclaimed fourth novel, is by contrast stratified in the most conventional of storytelling terms: pitched as a noir thriller that is told, for the most part, linearly.
The novel begins in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. An eleven-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father, a poor union man after the financial crash, to visit the beach house of Dexter Styles, a man younger and wealthier than Anna’s father, a nightclub owner with ties to the mob.
It is against the atmospheric seascape of the Atlantic in deep winter that Egan establishes the novel’s central conceit of loss and secrecy:
“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.”
From here, the story jumps forward several years to wartime New York. By now Anna is twenty and working on the Brooklyn Dock Yard and her father has been missing for five years. Pursuing her ambitions of become a diver (unheard of for a woman at the time), Anna is soon drawn back to the mysteries of the ocean she observed as a child and compelled to dig up the secrets of her father’s disappearance.
At her best, Egan’s descriptive powers are almost unsurpassed in contemporary American literature. “The roar of Yard noise always shocked her: crane and truck and train engines; the caterwaul of steel being cut and chipped in the nearby structural shop; men hollering to be heard. The stench of coal and oil mingled with gusts of chocolate from the factory on Flushing Avenue” is an evocative description, laced with the historically accurate observation of the chocolate factory on Flushing Avenue.
But Egan feels compelled to annex this description with further erudition from her prodigious research into wartime Brooklyn. In the next sentence she writes, qualifying: “It wasn’t chocolate anymore, but something for soldiers to eat when they might otherwise starve. This chocolate cousin was supposed to taste like a boiled potato, Anna had heard, so that soldiers wouldn’t be tempted to snack on it ahead of time. But the smell was still delicious.” The precision of Egan’s initial observation is undermined in the following sentence’s muddled logic – leaving wondering: what is Anna really smelling?
In instances like these – and there many, bigger and more cloying as the novel goes on (descriptions of Anna’s diving, for example) – Egan makes the mistake of many historical fiction writers: laboured reportage. The balance of her novelistic practice keels from the creative to the journalistic; undermining the reason we’re all here, to enjoy Egan’s usually dynamic story telling.
But in Manhattan Beach the fictional universe is an awkward mesh of grotesque caricatures (there is, for example, a Chicago gangster called “Badger”) and period vernacular (Anna’s father irritating habit of calling her “Toots”).
And in the middle of all this is Anna herself, a courageous character who seems brilliantly at odds with her time and place. That’s because she is. Egan describes Anna elsewhere in the novel as a “smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy.” In expository like this, Egan does the thinking for us – leaving little for us to bother about.
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If time, as one character says in Egan’s previous novel, is a goon, then time has made a goon of this novel. It seems Egan began researching the Brooklyn Dockyard as early as 2004 and if my suspicions are right Manhattan Beach is the novel Egan alluded to in press interviews at the time as abandoning in favour of the irreverent Goon Squad. Perhaps after all that success Egan should have kept the half-finished manuscript of Manhattan Beach shelved, but I suppose only time will tell.