Anna Kerrigan, the heroine of Manhattan Beach, is captivated as soon as she sees a diving suit. It looks ‘primally familiar … as if from a dream or a myth’. She’s good with her hands, able to tie and untie knots and use tools with her eyes closed, but the lieutenant in charge of the diving unit is dubious and patronising. ‘You see the pretty waves, the nice sea foam. You like to swim,’ he tells her. ‘But it isn’t like that underneath. Water is heavy … We’ve no idea how the female body would react.’ The demands that diving makes on the body are certainly ferocious. A diving suit weighs more than two hundred pounds and is agony to wear on land; while the weight of the suit lets up underwater, the pressure of the water itself can have unimaginably grisly consequences. But diving turns out to be everything Anna hoped it would be, delivering her to ‘a purely tactile realm that seemed to exist outside the rest of life … like pushing through a wall and finding a hidden chamber just beyond it’.
It’s 1942, and Anna has a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which, during the war, employed seventy thousand workers. Several thousand of these were women, who at first held only administrative roles but later worked in production too, welding, plumbing, riveting and inspecting. Anna joins the Navy Yard as an inspector of the tiny parts that will be used to build the USS Missouri, the battleship on which the peace treaty with Japan will eventually be signed in 1945. She goes on to become the shipyard’s only female diver, descending forty feet or more below water in order to repair ships.
Manhattan Beach is Jennifer Egan’s fifth novel, her first since 2011’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her previous novels, formally and thematically diverse, have in common a fascination with pop culture and the media, and the effect of digital technology on the individual’s sense of self. Because of these interests, and the simultaneous connectedness and fragmentation of her fictional worlds, critics have cast Egan as an heir to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, albeit one whose postmodern trickery makes room for strong and emotive storytelling. Her second novel, Look at Me, came out the week after 9/11 and followed a reformed terrorist trying to make a new life for himself in the Midwest and a model whose facial reconstruction following a car crash brings her fame on something like the not-yet-invented Facebook. The Keep, set in a prison and a nameless European country, features a character who suffers a twitchy, unignorable distress whenever he finds himself out of the range of a mobile phone signal – a feeling most of us, back in 2006, were only just beginning to experience. A Visit from the Goon Squad ratcheted up the formal inventiveness and metafictional moves of its precursors, each of its thirteen chapters taking as its protagonist a minor character from a preceding one. One of the chapters – perhaps the most moving – took the form of a series of PowerPoint slides. In 2012, Egan released a short story through the New Yorker’s twitter account, 140 characters or fewer at a time. In short, Egan isn’t the likeliest candidate for historical novelist.
Nevertheless, Manhattan Beach belongs unapologetically to this genre, evidently the product of tremendous research and an absorption in the effects of historical events and social attitudes on individuals. Although most of the novel takes place during the early 1940s, it opens in and periodically returns to the previous decade. In 1934, Anna’s father, Eddie, a longshoreman whose lack of work during the Great Depression leads him to become a bagman for a powerful Brooklyn racketeer, brings his young daughter to the waterfront family home of Dexter Styles, who owns a string of successful nightclubs that act as a front for his less legal activities. Eleven-year-old Anna isn’t sure what’s happening, but she knows enough not to mention Mr Styles to her mother, who is exhausted by the stress and expense of caring for her severely disabled younger daughter.
Three years later, Eddie walks out of the family home and never returns. Five years after that, Anna starts work at the Navy Yard. She has forgotten almost entirely about her childhood encounter with Mr Styles until she runs into him in one of his nightclubs. The novel explores the pasts and presents of Dexter, Eddie and Anna, each character moving between the thrill and danger of work, whether criminal or underwater, and the loving and constraining domesticity of family life. As Dexter and Anna draw closer together, the novel develops into a noirish thriller focused on Eddie’s disappearance.
Egan’s depiction of gangsters and nightclubs is lively and intricate, but there’s something disappointing in seeing a writer of her inventiveness and freedom perform so faithfully a thriller’s familiar notes. Disappointing, too, is Anna’s trajectory, which follows that of countless plucky and preternaturally modern heroines of historical fiction. But the novel comes alive when Egan describes Anna’s longing to dive, and the physical and social barriers that stand in the way of her doing so. The sense of power and expansiveness that she has below water is the same sense that Dexter himself has as he listens to his banker father-in-law predict the ascendancy of the United States after the war. Manhattan Beach is a portrayal of very particular pursuits, but these pursuits stretch into every corner of a country gearing up to become one that will dominate the second half of the 20th century. Egan is at her best when representing hidden connections and transforming worlds. At these moments, Manhattan Beach comes close to being as subtle and engrossing as anything in her previous works.