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.Â What on earth made her do it?
From the beginning of her career, Eganâs 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,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 BeachÂ (Scribner, 433Â pp., ***Â½ out of four stars) picks up those themes âÂ 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 Navyâs divers in the river, and her soul leaps toward them âÂ she wants to dive.
The novelâs second major character is Annaâs fatherâs old employer, a dashing nightclub owner named Dexter Styles. By his marriage and foresight he has managed to go mostly clean. âHe liked the thought that his own power would one day be refined into translucence,â Egan writes, âwith no memory of the blood and earth that had generated it.â When his path crosses Annaâs, though, that ambition comes into doubt.
Egan has every gift a writer can possess, and like all of her work Manhattan BeachÂ is radiant with intelligence, special simply because itâs by her. Take Annaâs determination to become the Navyâs 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 BeachÂ to resemble Annaâs feeling of uncertainty as she examines her past.
Still, it is only Eganâs talent and effort âÂ there are more than a hundred names in the acknowledgments âÂ 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 BeachÂ (one breathtaking set piece describes a shipwreck) are often just tangentially historical. Sheâs not Hilary Mantel, who as if by a miracle returned an epoch to its laboratory state.
Itâs 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 themÂ Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Colson Whitehead and GeorgeÂ Saunders.
Manhattan BeachÂ is, radically, a book without radical impulse. An ironist might be suspicious of its concerns: parting, loss, family, war. But perhaps itâs 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. âThe afternoon,â Robert Frost wrote, âknows what morning never suspected.â
Charles Finch writes the Charles Lenox mystery series.