Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach

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Manhattan Beach covers a period of about 10 years, from the mid-30’s to the mid-40’s, but its reach is much wider. It reaches back to the years of Prohibition, the rise of the Mafia and other crime gangs and their entanglement with the labour unions, the Depression and America’s entry into WW2. And it reaches forward in this prediction by one of the moneyed aristocrats of NY society:

I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever. Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians. Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France. Hah! You’re all looking at me like I’ve one foot in the funny farm. How is that possible? you ask. Because our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible. 92

Manhattan Beach shows us America becoming what it is. The story of Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie and the crime boss Dexter Styles is fairly conventional in its outline: Eddie is an honest man who has to resort to being a bagman for criminals to provide for his family, Anna is a steely, independent girl who fights her way into a job no other woman has had, that of a diver in the Naval Dockyards, and Dexter is a career criminal with something of a conscience and a longing to find a better footing in the world. Anna wants to find out what happened to her father, who disappeared when she was 13; Styles knows. In Egan’s hands, all these characters and their interactions are full of life. You feel her subtle intelligence everywhere, in the rich detail of the physical world as in the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

The sea is at the heart of it all, from the freezing Manhattan beach of the first chapter to the oily water of the docks and the cloudy depths where Anna dives, the black waters in the centre of the bay where a corpse can be thrown overboard, and the savagery of the open sea after a ship has sunk. Every character has some sort of ordeal by water, and the tides, depths and dangers of the sea are in the book the way salt air is the taste of a dockside city.
There’s an obvious symbolism here, but it’s never laboured.

The power seemed to me to slacken in the last section, as if there were a kind of mopping-up operation going on, a tying-off of loose ends in the story of Eddie, Anna and Dexter. Perhaps that’s because for me the details of their story were not the real interest. It’s America, the world they inhabit, that makes the book so rich, memorable and absorbing.

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12 thoughts on “Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach

    1. Whatever she writes will get a lot of attention. I think people are surprrsed that this is relatively conventional in its structure. No, I don’t think it’s one for you.

  1. I’m just about to collect this book from the library so it was interesting to read your review. I liked the final remark as place and the lives of the people there do so much to make a book involving.

    1. I think the book shows that the elements that go into making the dream also make the nightmare. People seem to think it has a lot of resonance in the age of Trump, though she started writing it well before that.

        1. Human nature being what it is, that unbridled worship of individual rights and so-called “freedom” is bound to go wrong. Australia is heading down the same path, but we’re a long way from accepting a con-man like Trump as a serious choice.

  2. Having finished Manhattan Beach I went back to Gert’s illuminating review. I agree that period and place were the most important elements in the book and brought it to life. Although I found the characters interesting, particularly as some of them came from a shadowy world I felt I was seeing them from outside. Perhaps this was because the text was so visual. The ending did seem contrived and I think that there were possibly too many strands to be brought together in the final scenes. A satisfying read.

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