The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Anna Kerrigan, the protagonist of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan’s new novel, might well nod at Larkin’s sentiment, certainly as it relates to her father. Set all over Brooklyn before and during World War II, Manhattan Beach opens on a rather idyllic note. Anna and her father are driving to the titular, perplexedly-named south Brooklyn neighborhood, one of many trips “Anna liked [to take with her father] when she wasn’t in school—to racetracks, Communion breakfasts and church events.”
But trouble is looming. These are the Great Depression years; money is tight in the Kerrigan house, and it becomes clear—perhaps even to eleven-year-old Anna—that her father is involved in something shady. That something propels much of Egan’s narrative and will shadow Anna for the rest of her life. Manhattan Beach is, first and foremost, a bit of a departure for Egan. Her previous novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), won the Pulitzer Prize and dazzled many with its decades-spanning pyrotechnics, its caustic vision of our tech-saturated not-too-distant future, and—yes—its much-discussed PowerPoint presentation. With Manhattan Beach, Egan unabashedly enters Alice McDermott territory, writing a restrained, psychologically-rich, drama set in the racially white outer boroughs, where grace and sin and sadness are whispers in steamy kitchens.
But since Alice McDermott pretty much owns that turf, the wily Egan adds a dash of another giant of Irish American literature, William Kennedy. Manhattan Beach is populated with just enough two-bit gangsters, former showgirls, and guys who know guys with connections to come off not only as eminently plausible, but to also imperil Anna’s family. Neither the reader nor Anna knows what happened, but by the time Pearl Harbor is bombed, Anna’s dad has vanished, and Anna is working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as thousands of trailblazing women did during the war. The scenes at the Navy Yard are excellent, exploring the vital work these women did, even as they also indulged in gossipy drama, initiated largely by older women Anna dismisses as “the marrieds.” Anna is clearly haunted by her father’s disappearance, yet must also march on with life—there is her job to do, a disabled sister to tend to, and bold friends urging her to hit the nightclubs and find a man. One day, in a moment loaded with (perhaps heavy-handed) symbolism, Anna catches a glimpse of a different kind of work crew at the Navy Yard—divers who are sent deep into the ocean to fix ships or perform other dangerous duties. Anna is awe-struck and immediately sets out to blaze another trail—become the first woman to don the heavy diving suit in order to explore murky depths and try to repair something broken.
Of course, her life doesn’t get fixed so easily.
Though Anna is at times vulnerable, desperate, and bitter, above all else she is forceful. That strength is severely tested when a figure from her father’s past returns, and an initial desire for clues turns into something far more consequential. Manhattan Beach builds to a rather stunning climax, though getting there is more of a stroll than a sprint. Egan spends most of this hefty book all over New York City, from a flat on Flushing Avenue, to swanky gangster joints in Manhattan, out to the isolated shores of Staten Island. But this being Jennifer Egan, perhaps we should not be surprised that there’s not only a twist at the end, but one which requires a brief diversion to South Africa and New Guinea.
Along the way (spoiler alert), Anna must wrestle with the blunt advice Philip Larkin offers in the final line of his poem about parents, and when you’ve turned the final page of Manhattan Beach, what is striking, above all else, is the sheer amount of life this young daughter of Brooklyn has been forced to live.
In the end, with Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan has gone above and beyond in meeting the challenge facing every storyteller—to make the lives of seemingly ordinary people extraordinary. In a famous 2008 New York Review of Books essay, Zadie Smith explores the problems arising from the split in fiction between traditional dramatic realism and more avant-garde, experimental narratives. With A Visit from the Goon Squad and now Manhattan Beach, Egan has essentially solved the problem. Why not simply try writing both?