By Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 438 pp, softcover
With the stylistic pyrotechnics of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, readers might have missed something key to that book’s success. A time-jumping, perspective-shifting collection of linked stories, each told in a different form (including a story told entirely in PowerPoint slides), the book is dazzling, but its great strength wasn’t its cleverness or style; it was Egan’s attention to the characters, her empathy and her ability to elicit connections and unifying elements amid the chaos of vastly differing worlds.
The humanity of Egan’s work comes to the fore in her powerful and impressive new novel Manhattan Beach, which, on first glance, might appear to be a fairly routine historical novel, with a largely linear narrative and chronology. It would be wrong to sell Egan short, though. While Manhattan Beach lacks the surface flash of A Visit From the Goon Squad, it’s far from simple or straightforward.
The novel begins in the Depression, with precocious 12-year-old Anna accompanying her father, Eddie, a bagman for a union boss, when he visits Dexter Styles and his family at home. Anna routinely accompanies her father on his jobs, but there’s something different about this day, about the mysterious Mr. Styles. Something important. Something dangerous.
That first section serves as a prelude, the action of the novel picking up a few years later with Anna at work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. It’s the early days of the war, and Anna is supporting her mother and her handicapped younger sister. Eddie has disappeared, run off on his family, leaving information about a secret bank account, but no contact information. Anna likes the work, the responsibility, and the freedom, and, after seeing a crew descending, sets her heart on becoming a diver. She also becomes involved with Nell, a brassy, confident bon vivant. It’s on a night out with Nell in Manhattan that Anna meets the club owner, a mobster nudging toward respectability: Dexter Styles.
Despite the trappings of a standard historical novel, a period piece about women’s empowerment in the shadow of war, Egan’s ambitions are writ much larger. Manhattan Beach is a novel about the complications of family and society, of the relationships between parents and children, and between men and women. It’s a novel of sifting layers, of looming shadows, a subsurface exploration of the depths and mysteries within each of us, with moments that will provide a startled shock of recognition. It’s a wonder.
Jennifer Egan will appear in conversation with Bill Richardson at a Vancouver Writers Fest event at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (October 25) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre.