I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s fiction before although I’ve always meant to get to her Pulitzer Prize winning “A Visit from the Good Squad” – especially after enjoying so much the varied selection of stories found in the “Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology which Egan guest edited that year. I’ve heard the way Egan handles time in her writing and her method of structuring a story is quite experimental. So it was somewhat surprising to discover that “Manhattan Beach” is constructed like a much more traditional historical novel, but one that is done so powerfully well it reads as a totally innovative and striking take on NYC life during WWII.
The story centres around the life of a young woman named Anna who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and her determination to become a diver working on the submerged hulls of ships and underwater pipelines. Running through the novel is the mystery of what happened to her father Ed who vanished from their family life leaving Anna and her mother Agnes alone to care for her severely physically and mentally disabled younger sister Lydia. She seeks answers about her father’s fate from Dexter Styles, an influential local gangster who, despite his power, finds himself precariously caught between a godfather-like crime boss whose network of schemes he oversees and his respectable high-society father-in-law. Anna and Dexter’s lives intersect and they separately reach a crisis point which requires them to radically alter their lives. It’s an atmospheric tale bouncing between sparkling star-studded gangster-run clubs to the plight of shipwrecked sailors to the murky bottom of Wallabout Bay. It’s as captivating in its portrayal of a working class single woman as it is in the way it shows larger American societal shifts amidst cataclysmic wartime losses.
Egan’s descriptive prose are so engaging. These include evocative observations about life working in a wartime factory, the social order of navy life and the complex workings of the criminal underworld. But there are also subtle portrayals about physical development. For instance, when Ed is an adolescent it’s remarked: “He’d turned twelve, tall and scrawny, fastened together with muscles like leather thongs.” It’s especially poignant when Egan shows Anna’s attempt to form an emotional connection with Lydia who is physically limited in how she can communicate. There are also beautifully profound moments when Anna finally dives underwater and experiences an entirely different world free from the complexity of life on the surface. It’s almost like the readers’ senses are adjusted alongside Anna’s so we can experience a vision of clouded water and the sounds inside her diver’s helmet.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are the ways prejudice is portrayed in novels and the degree to which we can distinguish a character’s perspective from the authorial voice. There are several scenes where uncomfortable remarks are made about different immigrant communities in NYC, but it was clear that these are mediated through the perspective of Dexter and are bound with this character’s social prejudices. It becomes even more evident that this is the case when Dexter at one point comes to interact with Lydia and he refers to her only as “the cripple.” This shows how he really doesn’t consider her an individual and can’t see past her disability or consider her humanity. It’s all the more tragic when Ed recalls spending time with a young Lydia and the acute shame and disgust he feels towards his daughter’s condition. Egan also writes compellingly about the complex commanding order of shipmates and how traditional social orders amongst different racial groups are scrambled in this unique environment.
Like all great historical fiction, this novel has something to say about the world we’re living in right now. When Dexter’s father-in-law is speculating about America’s position in the global community he surmises “our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.” Today, consumerism has run rampant and personal debt threatens to throw us all into a tailspin again at any moment while stripping the environment down to the bone. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which America’s global influence could have been different after the war if the forces in power were motivated by something other than profit.
“Manhattan Beach” was overall a joy to read and it includes a sassy, free-thinking aunt named Brianne who ultimately became my favourite character.