“The sea, the sea!” It’s the jubilant, elemental cry of a child released from a hot car on a summer day, but also a phrase with deep historical and literary roots. The shout of mercenary Greek soldiers—“Thalatta! Thalatta!”—in 401 b.c., when they finally glimpsed the Black Sea, and thus their salvation, on their way back from fighting in Persia, in Xenophon’s telling. A symbol of solace and rejuvenation, in Paul Valéry’s poem “The Graveyard by the Sea”: “The sea, the sea, always beginning anew.” A source of fear and violence, in the famous monologue of Molly Bloom in Ulysses: “That awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire.”
Joy, purification, renewal, death—the sea is all of these things in Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s intricately patterned and visionary new novel. The author of four previous novels and a collection of short stories, Egan broke free of the Brooklyn-writer pack with her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), one of the most stirring and unusual works of fiction of the past decade. Something between a novel and a collection of linked stories, it follows more than a dozen characters in interconnected episodes spanning nearly five decades. Each segment plunges the reader into the life of a different character, someone who has appeared already in an earlier episode, now seen more intimately. The change in perspective can take a moment to register—how did the earnest teenage music fan become the hotshot record producer we saw in the previous chapter?—but once you adjust, it’s dizzying how much can be perceived from a different vantage.
“Time’s a goon,” more than one character remarks, in what serves as a quirky mantra for the novel: Time will inevitably have its way with them all. But if this is so, then the novelist is the leader of the “goon squad,” since she is the one who scrolls forward and backward in their lives, offering up a well-chosen moment here or there as if selecting tracks for an existential playlist. There are moments when the wheel spins wildly, letting us glance years ahead, then returning us gently to where we were. One of the book’s most remarked-upon chapters is written as a PowerPoint presentation. It’s striking not just because of its originality, but because of the way the nonlinear form—which utilizes gaps and white space as much as words—mimics the novel itself. Almost everything happens in the pauses, the gaps between the chapters. The reader is left to make the pieces and pauses into a story.