Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2017; 438 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J Schlosser
I had every intention of reading Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, without to comparing it to her 2010 masterpiece A Visit From The Goon Squad, and Egan made that intention easy to do. Manhattan Beach is a wonder in the long form, a continuum simply because it can only be defined as a novel and no other form of literature, but a wonder nonetheless in what Egan can bring to life in history and social statement.
Manhattan Beach is the story of Anna Kerrigan, daughter of a gangster who deserts civilian life and his family during World War II to join the Merchant Marine. We follow Anna through her childhood “errands” with her father and her familiarity with the company her father keeps to her early adult contributions to the war effort through working first as a fixture inspector and then as a diver for the welding and other repair work at the New York Naval Yard. As a fixture inspector she only works with women (the “marrieds,” mostly), but as a diver she is the only woman and set example for the men hired after her to steer their development by; her supervisor continuously pulls the shaming of if-a-woman-can-do-this-you-should-be-able-to-gentlemen line of accomplishment. Despite acting as the trend-setter, Anna is often banished to menial tasks once the team is established, until she proves herself in the few opportunities she has to dive that she is the best person for the job. The diving also leads to discovery in terms of clues to her father’s fate, melding the help of one of her father’s associates from Anna’s childhood and the gangster strength of procuring the diving team to allow Anna to visit the site where her father was last seen, in New York Harbor. The presumed fate of her father seems obvious, but Egan bends around any dwelling of it while providing a spare progression of the plot:
“What I am looking for?”she said.
“You know what.”
“I mean what else.”
It took a moment. “Ropes, I’d imagine. A weight of some kind. Possibly a chain.”
Raising her voice to Marle and Bascombe, she said, “I’m ready.”
The scene not only nods to the discovery Anna is determined to carry out, but defines the nature of diving technology that Anna is working with; diving in that time was without lighting (which wasn’t so much an issue during the day confines of her job), and she has to feel her way through the harbor floor to find “ropes...possibly a chain.” The history speaks to the technical confines, the accomplishment of Anna in a man’s job and, strangely, Anna as seductress, allows her the open door into finding her father. Egan doesn’t need any literary tricks for this compelling plot; the trick is situational—gangster punishment meets Rosie the Riveter opportunity meets the dangerous and needed skill of diving. The obvious turns and twists, and Egan still looks like a great inventor, telling us something we didn’t know in the straightforward way that states we should have known, thus designing a new element of surprise from history.