Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for a collection of linked short stories called A Visit from the Goon Squad. She’s rightfully lauded for writing literary fiction that incorporates the carnal pleasures of genre fiction without sacrificing her considerable formal or linguistic powers. So when her latest book, Manhattan Beach, was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award, the fact registered as a happy inevitability: Egan has written another excellent book, and we all must read it.
But a full third of the way into this very obviously well-researched, immersive piece of historical fiction, I started feeling the sensation I feel when I watch a classic movie I’m supposed to like: When is this thing going to get good? When will a character make the gesture that pulls me into the world and keeps me there? When will a scene pulse with metaphorical resonance? With the exception of a few false leads, Egan steadfastly refused to make such a move until the last few chapters of the book, which is only sort of defensible given the novel’s structural obsession.
Manhattan Beach is a book about edges, so a certain “edging” quality to the narrative might be forgiven. Most of the action takes place in New York City during World War II, right when the United States is on the edge of victory in the European theater. Locations include the titular beach, that battleground of land and sea jutting out from south Brooklyn and into the Atlantic, as well as edgy nightclubs and smoke-filled side rooms. As a roving close-third narrator, Egan slings out 1940s slang, lists a bunch of card games nobody plays anymore, and indulges in the occasional “toots.” There’s joy in reading lines like “Dexter smelled a rat before he’d even reached the boat house,” even if the language itself is just on the edge of parody.
The main characters live on the edges of life. While heroically enduring, or otherwise bucking, the patriarchy in its various and pernicious forms, Anna pursues her high-risk dream of becoming a diver in the service of the war effort; an alien-looking suit is the only thing separating her from death. The existence of her father, Eddie, is constantly in question, as is the viability of her profoundly disabled sister, Lydia. The other main character, Dexter, is a veteran gangster experiencing a midlife crisis. He wants to give up the game for honest work, but it’s proving difficult.
Despite all this edginess, the prose bloats with beautiful but somewhat boring technical descriptions of diving equipment. Whole chapters feel like fruitless diversions, and in general the story’s mysteries lack suspense. Egan is in command of her sentences, and her control of the mind’s camera is masterful. But the blood doesn’t quicken and the mind doesn’t race until some serious business goes down at sea, and even then the story gets stuffed with superfluous literary allusions. Egan’s greatness is apparent in these moments, but it takes too long to get to them.
by Jennifer Egan