Egan dives into historical fiction with sparkling ‘Manhattan Beach’ – USA TODAY
Jennifer Egan has written a rich, brilliant, capacious new historical novel called Manhattan Beach.Ã‚Â What on earth made her do it?
From the beginning of her career, EganÃ¢Â€Â™s fiction has been experimental and enigmatic, hovering just at the outer edge of realism. The book that made her seriously famous, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad,Ã‚Â had a chapter made up of PowerPoint slides. It also had a tender heart; her clever manipulations of convention, designed in her early work to demand uneasy questions of the reader, softened into a means of contemplating transience and mortality.
Manhattan BeachÃ‚Â (Scribner, 433Ã‚Â pp., ***Ã‚Â½ out of four stars) picks up those themes Ã¢Â€Â”Ã‚Â but in a traditional, occasionally even sentimental fashion.
The book (which has been long-listed for the National Book Award) is set for the most part in New York during World War II, where a young woman named Anna Kerrigan works as part of the war effort at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She has a difficult life (her father is missing, her sister severely disabled) but she has a vision, too. From her window she can see the NavyÃ¢Â€Â™s divers in the river, and her soul leaps toward them Ã¢Â€Â”Ã‚Â she wants to dive.
The novelÃ¢Â€Â™s second major character is AnnaÃ¢Â€Â™s fatherÃ¢Â€Â™s old employer, a dashing nightclub owner named Dexter Styles. By his marriage and foresight he has managed to go mostly clean. Ã¢Â€ÂœHe liked the thought that his own power would one day be refined into translucence,Ã¢Â€Â Egan writes, Ã¢Â€Âœwith no memory of the blood and earth that had generated it.Ã¢Â€Â When his path crosses AnnaÃ¢Â€Â™s, though, that ambition comes into doubt.
Egan has every gift a writer can possess, and like all of her work Manhattan BeachÃ‚Â is radiant with intelligence, special simply because itÃ¢Â€Â™s by her. Take AnnaÃ¢Â€Â™s determination to become the NavyÃ¢Â€Â™s first female diver: the best metaphors make their own intimations without authorial assistance, and diving, the murk of it, the groping, the risk, comes so beautifully in Manhattan BeachÃ‚Â to resemble AnnaÃ¢Â€Â™s feeling of uncertainty as she examines her past.
Still, it is only EganÃ¢Â€Â™s talent and effort Ã¢Â€Â”Ã‚Â there are more than a hundred names in the acknowledgments Ã¢Â€Â”Ã‚Â that keep this novel afloat of its genre, coaxing a little fresh life out of the most over-dramatized period in American history. The best parts of Manhattan BeachÃ‚Â (one breathtaking set piece describes a shipwreck) are often just tangentially historical. SheÃ¢Â€Â™s not Hilary Mantel, who as if by a miracle returned an epoch to its laboratory state.
ItÃ¢Â€Â™s interesting, then, to contemplate her motivations. A generation of writers is beginning to age out of its youthful allegiance to the postmodern influence of DeLillo and Barthelme, among themÃ‚Â Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Colson Whitehead and GeorgeÃ‚Â Saunders.
Manhattan BeachÃ‚Â is, radically, a book without radical impulse. An ironist might be suspicious of its concerns: parting, loss, family, war. But perhaps itÃ¢Â€Â™s mostly young novelists who burn to remake the world.
Egan, at 55, has turned her virtuosic skills toward recapturing it. The result is moving, mournful, and often profound. Ã¢Â€ÂœThe afternoon,Ã¢Â€Â Robert Frost wrote, Ã¢Â€Âœknows what morning never suspected.Ã¢Â€Â
Charles Finch writes the Charles Lenox mystery series.
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