Jen­nifer Egan’s Man­hat­tan Beach

Kevin Ra­bal­ais on Jen­nifer Egan’s Man­hat­tan Beach

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

From the first few sen­tences of Jen­nifer Egan’s new novel, Man­hat­tan Beach (Cor­sair; $32.99), the reader sinks into the com­fort of en­ter­ing a world com­plete, one un­der the un­wa­ver­ing con­trol of its maker. At the same time, a prick of ex­cite­ment flows un­der the skin: this is some­thing great that will get greater as the pages turn. What be­gins as a fa­ther–daugh­ter story dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion’s freefall into de­spair – with ban­ter rem­i­nis­cent of the best ’30s and ’40s screw­ball come­dies – trans­forms into a com­ing-of-age tale, a war novel, a fam­ily saga and a crime story, in which those most harmed are those most loved.

Win­ning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fic­tion for her pre­vi­ous novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, has el­e­vated Egan to I-may-have-heard-that-name sta­tus, but her chameleonic ten­dency to rein­vent re­mains her great­est virtue, even as (and per­haps be­cause) it chal­lenges her fan base. In The Keep, she up­dates the gothic novel. Look at Me ven­tures into the sur­real, while her 1995 de­but, The In­vis­i­ble Cir­cus,

pushes the bound­aries of the po­lit­i­cal novel. This body of work pulses with play­ful­ness. You never know what to ex­pect from a new Egan novel, but she re­wards those who fol­low her.

If Egan sur­prised us with each new per­spec­tive in A Visit from the Goon Squad, the nar­ra­tive ver­sion of a hall of mirrors, then the leap she makes with Man­hat­tan Beach

seems as dar­ing as Kazuo Ishig­uro’s hop­scotch from The Re­mains of the Day to The Un­con­soled, or David Malouf’s jour­ney from Johnno to

An Imag­i­nary Life. It takes a brave writer to cross to op­po­site poles from one book to the next. Egan achieves these tran­si­tions with­out hi­jinks. She’s like a great ac­tress who de­fies recog­ni­tion with each new role.

Man­hat­tan Beach be­gins in 1934 in De­pres­sion-era Amer­ica. Ed­die Ker­ri­gan drives with his 11-year-old daugh­ter, Anna, to Brook­lyn’s Man­hat­tan Beach. Anna has never known her fa­ther to be as ner­vous as he is on this day. Years pass be­fore she un­der­stands the rea­son.

Through Egan’s crys­talline ob­ser­va­tions, we learn about Ed­die’s strug­gles to sup­port his wife and two daugh­ters, the cu­ri­ous Anna and her gravely dis­abled younger sis­ter, Ly­dia. Anna has wit­nessed changes in her fa­ther, and coun­try, even in her own short life­time. With­out truly un­der­stand­ing, she ob­serves Ed­die as he re­sorts to fer­ry­ing money to cor­rupt union of­fi­cials. Egan writes, “The ideal bag­man was un­af­fil­i­ated with ei­ther side, neu­tral in dress and de­port­ment, and able to rid these ex­changes of the un­der­handed feel­ing they nat­u­rally had. Ed­die Ker­ri­gan was that man.”

Ev­ery de­tail in Man­hat­tan Beach, how­ever small, pro­pels its tense and en­gross­ing nar­ra­tive. In those open­ing pages on the beach, Ed­die meets Dex­ter Styles, a man who of­fers sim­ple kind­ness to Anna, com­ment­ing on her strength. This is how Anna re­mem­bers Styles un­til, seven years later, she dis­cov­ers his iden­tity as a shady night­club owner with ties to the un­der­world. By now the United States has en­tered World War Two, and it has been five years since her beloved fa­ther walked out the door never to re­turn. “For months his ab­sence had re­mained volatile and alive, as if he were in the next room or down the block,” Egan writes. “She would sit on the fire es­cape, grind­ing her gaze over the street be­low, think­ing she saw him – be­liev­ing that think­ing so would force him to reap­pear. How could he stay away when she was wait­ing so hard?”

Anna finds work at the Brook­lyn Naval Yard, where women now hold jobs that pre­vi­ously be­longed only to men. Rather than work those jobs with “the mar­rieds”, who long for the next let­ter from their sol­dier hus­bands, Anna wants to prove Styles cor­rect. She longs to work along­side the re­main­ing men at the naval yard and be­come a diver. With a steady diet of Ellery Queen de­tec­tive books – “Fin­ish­ing one al­ways left her dis­ap­pointed, as if some­thing about it had been wrong, an ex­pec­ta­tion un­ful­filled” – and a chance en­counter with Styles, Anna longs to un­der­stand the mys­tery of her fa­ther’s dis­ap­pear­ance: “In the two weeks since she’d en­coun­tered the night­club owner, her imag­i­na­tion had be­gun tip­toe­ing into dire, thrilling sce­nar­ios. Sup­pose her fa­ther hadn’t left home at all. Sup­pose he’d been oblit­er­ated by a hail of gang­land bul­lets, Anna’s name on his dy­ing lips like ‘Rose­bud’ in Ci­ti­zen Kane?”

Egan is a mas­ter at evok­ing small mo­ments, as when Styles of­fers to take Anna and Ly­dia for a day at the beach. “At the end of the street, un­der a gray ex­panse of sky, she sensed the ocean breath­ing like some­one asleep.” The novel’s wit and at­ten­tion to de­tail will re­mind read­ers of books by Lor­rie Moore and the woe­fully un­der-read Lau­rie Col­win, another writer of strong women char­ac­ters whose vi­va­cious­ness in­creases as they move deeper into the world of men. For a more re­cent com­par­i­son, read­ers who en­joyed Chris Cleave’s Ev­ery­one Brave Is For­given should push Man­hat­tan Beach to the top of their piles.

Even Egan’s mi­nor char­ac­ters hold their own, as when she writes of Anna’s Aunt Bri­anne, a one-time risqué pro­fes­sional dancer: “By her own ac­count, Bri­anne’s life had been one long fever of love af­fairs, nar­row es­capes, failed mar­riages, small parts in seven mov­ing pic­tures, and var­i­ous scrapes with the law aris­ing from booze, or nu­dity on stage. None of it had stuck ex­cept the Scotch, she liked to say: an in­dict­ment of the world’s thin and fickle of­fer­ings that not one could com­pete with the reli­able sat­is­fac­tion of a whiskey soda.” Egan also dis­plays a deft ear for di­a­logue. Mid­way through the novel and years after his de­par­ture, Ed­die re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with his favourite daugh­ter:

“Are there real gang­sters?” Anna asks.

“The pic­tures didn’t make them up,” Ed­die says.

“Do they look like Jimmy Cag­ney?”

“Jimmy Cag­ney doesn’t look like Jimmy Cag­ney.

He’s shorter than Mama!”

“Is he your friend?”

“I’ve shaken his hand.”

“Does he look like a gang­ster?”

“He looks like a pic­ture star.”

“How do you know a gang­ster?”

“Usu­ally, the room goes a lit­tle quiet when he walks in.”

Egan cre­ates a struc­ture of sus­pense, one that shifts flu­idly as peo­ple pass in and out of Anna’s evolv­ing life, as she forges her own iden­tity in the male-dom­i­nated world of the naval yard. Read­ers fa­mil­iar with Egan’s work will know how skil­fully she com­bines in­tri­cacy and plea­sure, and Man­hat­tan Beach is no ex­cep­tion. It will ap­peal not only to those who devour mul­ti­ple books each week but also to those who limit their habit to bad weather and the beach. This is her rich­est and most re­ward­ing novel yet, a thought­ful page-turner with in­deli­ble char­ac­ters.

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