Francine Prose

Man­hat­tan Beach by Jen­nifer Egan

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Man­hat­tan Beach by Jen­nifer Egan. Scrib­ner, 438 pp., $28.00

A third of the way through Jen­nifer Egan’s new novel, Man­hat­tan Beach, a young wo­man named Anna Ker­ri­gan en­lists Dex­ter Styles, a charis­matic night­club owner and rack­e­teer, to drive her and her se­verely dis­abled sis­ter, Ly­dia, to the seashore at the edge of Brook­lyn. Ly­dia, who can­not walk or feed her­self, and who rarely leaves her fam­ily’s cramped apart­ment, has never seen the ocean, and Anna al­lows her­self to hope that the ex­pe­ri­ence might ar­rest her sis­ter’s de­cline and jolt her out of her grow­ing de­tach­ment from the lov­ing do­mes­tic life around her. Dex­ter’s pala­tial house abuts a pri­vate beach, and he and Anna carry Ly­dia, swad­dled in an im­ported blan­ket from his linen closet and propped up in a spe­cially de­signed chair, to the edge of the wa­ter. It’s 1942, and in the dis­tance a pas­sen­ger ship sails by, pre­sum­ably trans­port­ing troops to Europe.

Dex­ter owns sev­eral pop­u­lar clubs and il­le­gal casi­nos around New York City. As he and Anna chat about his prof­itable in­volve­ment in the war ef­fort—“keep­ing the brass amused and eas­ing the pain of ra­tioning”—Ly­dia’s eyes blink open, and she be­gins to bab­ble. “The change in the crip­pled girl was ex­tra­or­di­nary. He’d found her sprawled un­con­scious, as if she’d been dropped from a height, but now she sat up in­de­pen­dently, hold­ing her head away from the stand.” Ly­dia’s awak­en­ing is so af­fect­ing that only later do we re­al­ize what a chal­lenge it must have been for the writer to make it not only dra­matic but plau­si­ble and per­sua­sive.

It couldn’t have been easy, ar­rang­ing for the salt air and pound­ing surf to work a near mir­a­cle, to make a mute girl speak, or al­most speak, and not send the story plum­met­ing into bathos. Egan suc­ceeds with a com­bi­na­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity and tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity: she com­pli­cates the scene at the beach so that Ly­dia’s re­mis­sion— which, we sense, will be lim­ited and brief—is only one of the things hold­ing our at­ten­tion. We’re equally, if not more, en­gaged by the mo­tives and se­crets that have brought Anna and Dex­ter to this stretch of sand. Events—and their con­se­quences—con­spire to re­veal what the char­ac­ters don’t know about one an­other and about them­selves, what they are will­ing to ad­mit and what they would rather keep hid­den. Dex­ter is un­aware, for ex­am­ple, that he and Anna have met be­fore. When she was eleven, her fa­ther, Ed­die, took her to play with Dex­ter’s daugh­ter on this same beach while the two men talked busi­ness. Anna’s re­sponse to that visit, and to her own first sight of the ocean, will res­onate eerily through­out the novel:

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.

Anna is too young to un­der­stand that her fa­ther makes his liv­ing as Dex­ter’s “bag­man”—“the sap who fer­ried some­thing (money, of course, but it wasn’t his busi­ness to know) be­tween men who should not rightly as­so­ci­ate.” It’s Ed­die’s job to de­liver bribes, col­lect pay-offs, and keep an eye on the em­ploy­ees at Dex­ter’s casi­nos. While her fa­ther and Dex­ter con­fer, Anna plays out her own drama. Stub­born and ap­peal­ingly proud, she re­jects the prof­fered gift of a doll that the gang­ster’s daugh­ter no longer plays with—and that she des­per­ately wants. Dur­ing the decade sep­a­rat­ing Anna’s two trips to Dex­ter’s pri­vate beach, Ed­die has van­ished, leav­ing her re­spon­si­ble for her mother and Ly­dia. Anna thinks that Dex­ter may have clues to the mys­tery of who her fa­ther was and why he dis­ap­peared.

Help­ing Ly­dia and Anna, mean­while, flat­ters Dex­ter’s van­ity, and the good deed al­lows him to see him­self as a hero. He turns down an in­vi­ta­tion to have lunch and play bil­liards with his pa­tri­cian fa­ther-in-law, whom he likes and ad­mires, be­cause he has made a prom­ise to Anna, whom he re­cently met at one of his night­clubs. He’s not ready to ad­mit that he finds her at­trac­tive, but it’s not en­tirely ac­ci­den­tal that he brings her and her sis­ter to his house when his wife and chil­dren are away. His tan­gled emo­tions, as well as their con­ver­sa­tion about the war ef­fort, in­spire a new—and ul­ti­mately un­help­ful—surge of ide­al­ism and pa­tri­otic high-mind­ed­ness that Dex­ter at­tempts to put into prac­tice when he meets with his boss, the ruth­less gang­land king­pin known as Mr. Q. This de­pic­tion of the ways in which love, even when it’s un­con­scious, can briefly make one a more gen­er­ous and noble per­son re­calls the mo­ment in Anna Karen­ina when Vron­sky, who has just met Tol­stoy’s hero­ine on the train, im­pul­sively gives money to the fam­ily of the rail­road guard killed on the tracks. Typ­i­cally, Egan lay­ers her char­ac­ters with con­tra­dic­tions and com­plex­i­ties. In the bril­liant A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) a spiky, sym­pa­thetic klep­to­ma­niac named Sasha has such over­whelm­ing em­pa­thy for the el­derly plumber fix­ing a leak in her apart­ment that she can cope with her feel­ings only by steal­ing the old man’s screw­driver. The hero­ine of Look at Me (2001) has an abil­ity to see be­neath the most metic­u­lously groomed and cul­ti­vated ex­te­ri­ors to glimpse “the nag­ging, flick­er­ing pres­ence” of “the shadow selves” of those around her—“that car­i­ca­ture that clings to each of us, re­veal­ing it­self in odd mo­ments when we laugh or fall still, star­ing brazenly from cer­tain bad pho­tographs.”

No one in Man­hat­tan Beach, how­ever, has emo­tional X-ray vi­sion. In­deed much of the plot is pro­pelled by the char­ac­ters’ faulty or par­tial un­der­stand­ing of one an­other and of how pro­foundly their friends, rel­a­tives, al­lies, and en­e­mies have been shaped by the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the era and the bor­ough—Brook­lyn—in which much of the novel is set.

Some writ­ers stake out an area of fic­tional ter­ri­tory—Flan­nery O’Con­nor’s

Ge­or­gia, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New Eng­land, Mavis Gal­lant’s Paris—and find riches enough there to mine for a life­time. Jen­nifer Egan is of the other sort: she is a nov­el­ist whose work keeps tak­ing her (and the reader) to new places. Each of her books is, at least on the sur­face, very dif­fer­ent from the rest. A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, con­sid­ers, among other sub­jects, the mys­tery of time, the 1970s punk mu­sic scene in San Fran­cisco, the com­ing global wa­ter short­age, psy­chother­apy, and the tra­vails of a pub­lic re­la­tions agent hired to im­prove a dic­ta­tor’s im­age.

Look at Me fol­lows three par­al­lel, sus­pense­ful sto­ries un­til they come to­gether in a dis­as­trous col­li­sion: an in­jured hero­ine’s pil­grim­age as a model through the brit­tle mi­lieu of haute cou­ture; the painful ed­u­ca­tion of an in­tel­li­gent, dis­af­fected high school girl; and the jour­ney, from New Jersey to Illi­nois, of a mys­te­ri­ous for­eigner who may or may not be an Is­lamist ter­ror­ist. Set in a shad­owy East­ern Euro­pean cas­tle with un­der­ground cav­erns and tun­nels, The Keep (2006) is a mod­ern take on an old-fash­ioned Gothic thriller, suf­fused with the pleas­ant creepi­ness of a vin­tage hor­ror film.

One of the el­e­ments that joins these seem­ingly dis­sim­i­lar nov­els in a sin­gle sen­si­bil­ity is that they are all cin­e­matic. In fact Egan’s fic­tions usu­ally con­jure a quite spe­cific film genre. Man­hat­tan Beach com­bines 1940s noir—movies in which James Cag­ney and Ge­orge Raft play gang­sters in im­pec­ca­ble over­coats and snappy fe­do­ras—with his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­tary about the New York wa­ter­front and the Brook­lyn Naval Yard. The book’s set­tings—from a swanky speakeasy to a train sta­tion swarm­ing “with sol­diers car­ry­ing iden­ti­cal brown duf­fels” to a lifeboat filled with ship­wrecked, des­per­ately thirsty sailors— feel re­mem­bered from films seen long ago.

Yet an­other thread unit­ing Egan’s nov­els is the un­usual com­pres­sion and den­sity of her writ­ing. The brief mini-nar­ra­tives she uses to il­lu­mi­nate a char­ac­ter are so fully de­vel­oped that an­other au­thor might see, in each one, enough for an en­tire novel. We learn a lot about Dex­ter from his re­sponse to—and his mem­ory of—a ca­sual af­fair that had be­gun when a wo­man he met on a train tapped on the door of his first-class sleeper in the mid­dle of the night:

They dis­em­barked that afternoon in An­gel, In­di­ana, in­tend­ing— what? In­tend­ing to con­tinue. They checked into a grand old ho­tel near the sta­tion as Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Im­me­di­ately, Dex­ter felt a change: now that the bleak win­ter land­scape was all around him, rather than slid­ing pic­turesquely past, he liked it less. Other ir­ri­tants fol­lowed: a sud­den dis­like of her per­fume; a sud­den dis­like of her laugh, the dry pork chop he was served in the ho­tel res­tau­rant, a cob­web dan­gling from the light fix­ture above the bed. Af­ter mak­ing love, she fell into a tor­porous sleep. But Dex­ter lay awake, lis­ten­ing to the howl­ing dogs, or was it wolves, wind clat­ter­ing the loose win­dow­panes. Ev­ery­thing he knew seemed ir­re­vo­ca­bly dis­tant: Har­riet, his chil­dren, the busi­ness he’d been charged to trans­act for Mr. Q.—too far gone for him ever to re­claim them. He felt how eas­ily a man’s life could slip away, sep­a­rated from him by thou­sands of miles of empty space.

Other pas­sages con­vey elu­sive sen­sa­tions in an un­for­get­table way. At a Man­hat­tan night­club, Anna en­joys her first taste of cham­pagne:

The pale gold po­tion snapped and frothed in her glass. When she took a sip, it crack­led down her throat— sweet but with a tinge of bit­ter­ness, like a barely per­cep­ti­ble pin in­side a cush­ion.

Egan’s gift for metaphor is ev­i­dent through­out, as in this snap­shot of the ne­far­i­ous Mr. Q.:

He was hulk­ing and cav­ernous at once, browned to ma­hogany. Time had en­larged him in an or­ganic, min­eral way, like a tree trunk, or salts ac­cret­ing in a cave. The frailty of his ad­vanced age showed it­self in the silty, tidal labors of his breath.

Here, as in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Look at Me, Egan opts for a panoramic and mul­ti­fac­eted plot di­vided into sub­plots that dove­tail at crit­i­cal junc­tures. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the novel is built on dra­matic set pieces and de­cep­tively mi­nor de­tails that will turn out to be im­por­tant. She re­lies on us to re­mem­ber ob­jects and in­ci­dents—a pocket watch, a piece of jew­elry, a bi­cy­cle, a street ad­dress, the name of a first love—from an ear­lier ap­pear­ance (some­times hun­dreds of pages back) in the novel. And we do re­call them, with a plea­sur­able pop of recog­ni­tion, the sense of things hav­ing come to­gether that was among the re­wards of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Like that novel and Look at Me, Man­hat­tan Beach aims to get the broad­est pos­si­ble cross-sec­tion of the world—or a cer­tain cor­ner of the world at a cer­tain time—onto the printed page. Pop­u­lated by char­ac­ters from a range of so­cial classes, all of them nav­i­gat­ing by wildly di­ver­gent moral com­passes, Man­hat­tan Beach takes us from the ex­clu­sive Rock­aways coun­try club where Dex­ter’s fa­ther-in-law holds court to the Ker­ri­g­ans’ ten­e­ment apart­ment where Anna and Ly­dia share a room. Anna’s ca­reer be­gins in the ma­chine shop at the Naval Yard where she painstak­ingly mea­sures, with a mi­crom­e­ter, parts for bat­tle­ships. Even­tu­ally she winds up ex­plor­ing the depths of Wal­labout Bay when—against the ob­jec­tions of al­most all her male bosses and co­work­ers—she is pro­moted from her te­dious mea­sur­ing job to be­come the Naval Yard’s first fe­male diver. Dressed in a crip­plingly heavy div­ing suit (“The dress weighs two hun­dred pounds. The hat alone weighs fifty-six. The shoes to­gether are thirty-five”), Anna sets foot on the bot­tom of the bay and feels

a rush of well-be­ing whose source was not in­stantly clear . . . Then she re­al­ized: the pain of the dress had van­ished. The air pres­sure from within it was just enough to bal­ance the pres­sure from out­side while main­tain­ing neg­a­tive buoy­ancy... This was like fly­ing, like magic—like be­ing in­side a dream.

On land and un­der­wa­ter, Anna is a rare fic­tional cre­ation in that she is a wo­man driven by de­sires—lust, al­tru­ism, com­pe­ti­tion, the im­pulse to do what the men around her in­sist she can’t do—with­out in­vok­ing the writer’s judg­ment. Wisely, Man­hat­tan Beach doesn’t spend much time ex­plor­ing the rea­sons why Anna wants to be­come a diver, but we may won­der about her un­con­scious mo­tives. Even­tu­ally, her ex­per­tise takes the story on a de­ci­sive turn to­ward a con­cil­ia­tory and sat­is­fy­ing, if not ec­stat­i­cally happy, end­ing. Egan’s read­ers may miss the sparkle of sly wit that glinted in her pre­vi­ous work, nov­els in which chic (or as­pi­ra­tionally chic) New York­ers eat at a res­tau­rant called Raw Feed, fre­quent a night­club named Jello, and say “Trauma up­sets the hair.” In Man­hat­tan Beach, one oc­ca­sion­ally feels that Egan is so de­ter­mined to get the facts and de­tails right that she can’t al­low her­self (and us) to have quite as much fun.

Writ­ers of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion rightly fear the mis­take that will lose the con­fi­dence and trust of the knowl­edge­able reader. Re­cently, watch­ing a Bri­tish TV se­ries set in the 1950s, I was dis­tracted from a cru­cial con­ver­sa­tion two char­ac­ters were hav­ing by the nag­ging thought that the teensy, pre­cious ar­range­ments of food on their plates would have been more typ­i­cal of restau­rants in the 1990s. Noth­ing in Man­hat­tan Beach dis­tracts in this way.

If Man­hat­tan Beach has flaws, per­haps they can be traced to the ac­knowl­edg­ments sec­tion: sev­eral pages of thanks to those who helped with the re­search that went into the novel. The pro­fu­sion of vin­tage brand names, ra­dio pro­grams, comic strips, songs, and slang phrases can seem more than strictly nec­es­sary to pro­vide a sense of au­then­tic­ity. Ea­ger to learn what hap­pens next, we may find our­selves skim­ming pas­sages like this one, which oc­curs as Anna pre­pares to make an il­licit dive that may fi­nally dis­close her fa­ther’s fate:

It was a Morse Air Pump No. 1, iden­ti­cal to the com­pres­sors at the Naval Yard. They had an­chored it to the bow, and now they cleaned its air reser­voirs, oiled the pis­ton rods, and lu­bri­cated the pump shaft han­dles with a mix­ture of oil and graphite. They’d had sur­pris­ingly lit­tle trou­ble re­mov­ing a pair of div­ing crates from the Naval Yard—each con­tain­ing a twohun­dred-pound dress—along with six fifty-foot lengths of air hose, a loaded tool bag, two div­ing knives, and a spare-parts tin.

Doubt­less there are read­ers who en­joy ob­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion from nov­els, while oth­ers may be more im­pa­tient to learn what Anna is about to dis­cover un­der­wa­ter. In any case such mo­ments are few in this am­bi­tious, com­pas­sion­ate, en­gross­ing book. Fin­ish­ing Man­hat­tan Beach is like be­ing ex­pelled from a world that—de­spite the hor­rors of the war be­ing fought in the back­ground, de­spite the oc­ca­sional gang­ster drugged and dumped into the sea—seems more char­i­ta­ble and rea­son­able and less chaotic than the one in which we live now.

Jen­nifer Egan, New York City, 2010; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

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