Jennifer Egan’s Surprising Swerve Into Historical Fiction

In Manhattan Beach, very few things are what they appear to be.

Sally Deng

“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.

Fans of Egan who have been eagerly anticipating her next novel may not initially be sure what to make of Manhattan Beach. To begin with, it’s a historical novel—perhaps today’s least fashionable form, and a thorough surprise after Goon Squad, the last chapter of which takes place in Manhattan in what seems to be the mid-2020s, and features smartphone-using toddlers and a sinister method of viral marketing. (If you thought this seemed prescient when the novel first came out, try reading it again now.) But perhaps the turn to the past is not as large a leap as it appears. The critic James Wood has called historical fiction “science fiction facing backward,” and though he didn’t intend it as a compliment, his remark gets at something inherent but not obvious about the form: It requires the author to construct a fictional universe—here, Brooklyn during World War II—based on a combination of research and imagination. Egan cites numerous experts who guided her, monographs she consulted, and even her own oral-history interviews.

In the current literary climate of fascination with the way we live now on the one hand and memoir on the other, why go to all this trouble? For some authors—Hilary Mantel among them—the historical novel works to illuminate the past in a way that traditional scholarship can’t, developing unexpected psychology for real-life figures and recasting familiar events in a surprising way. But Egan’s intentions are different. Here her focus moves from time to water, another element with the power both to heal and to destroy. Anna Kerrigan, the novel’s central figure, trains as a diver, trawling the bottom of New York Harbor to explore a “landscape of lost objects,” make repairs to World War II battleships, and finally search for a corpse. Manhattan Beach, too, plunges into the past to discover what lies beneath the surface of our own world.

On a chilly afternoon in 1934, 11-year-old Anna accompanies her father, Eddie, to visit the gangster Dexter Styles in his Manhattan Beach mansion. Eddie is a “bagman”—“the sap who ferries a sack containing something (money, of course, but it wasn’t his business to know) between men who should not rightly associate.” He earns subsistence wages, he is increasingly estranged from his wife, and he cannot bear the presence of his invalid younger daughter, Lydia, brain-damaged and paralyzed at birth. Seeking a job with Styles so that he can buy a wheelchair for Lydia, Eddie is chagrined when Anna—already a striver, appetitive and sensation-seeking—cheekily removes her shoes and puts her feet in the freezing water. But Styles is charmed. The meeting makes an impression on Anna that will have repercussions later.

When we next see them, it’s 1942. Anna, now 19, is working at a tedious job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, inspecting tiny ship parts with a micrometer. After a year at Brooklyn College, she’s helping to support her mother and Lydia. Eddie disappeared five years earlier without saying goodbye: “The truth had arrived gradually, like nightfall: a recognition, when she caught herself awaiting his return, that she’d waited days, then weeks, then months—and he’d still not come.” Eating lunch on the piers one day, Anna catches her first glimpse of a diver descending from one of the barges and feels “a seismic rearrangement within herself.” Longing to walk along the bottom of the sea, she begs the lieutenant in charge to let her try out for the job.

The preparations alone are grueling. With the help of two handlers, a diver must dress in a suit of rubberized canvas, complete with a copper breastplate, a belt with blocks of lead attached, a brass helmet, and shoes made of wood, metal, and leather. The full getup weighs about 200 pounds—necessary to keep the diver submerged underwater, but nearly impossible to walk in on land. (It’s no surprise to read in Egan’s acknowledgments that she tried on one of these suits herself: Its weight is palpable in her description.) To the lieutenant’s astonishment, Anna passes his first test—untying a knot while dressed in the suit, wearing three-fingered diving gloves. Still, he initially allows her to dive only as a way of embarrassing the other trainees, all men. Her acquisition of this skill is another essential link in the novel’s chain of events.

Like flotsam brought in with the tide and then washed out to sea again, seemingly insignificant details are introduced from one character’s perspective, then reappear again with a different meaning, seen through someone else’s eyes. At their initial meeting, Styles is impressed by Eddie Kerrigan’s car and his well-tailored suits; we quickly learn that the car is borrowed (it used to belong to Eddie, but he sold it to his boss during the Depression), the suits altered by his wife to fit his thinning frame.

Later, when a chance encounter with Anna results in Styles coming to her apartment to drive her and Lydia to the beach—Anna hopes a glimpse of the ocean might awaken her sister from the stupor she has recently fallen into—he notices marks on the wall where pictures have been removed. He assumes they were of the father who abandoned the family, and so have been banished. In fact, Anna removed them to prevent Styles from connecting her with her father, whose fate, she suspects, he had something to do with. Very few things here are what they initially appear to be; each of the assumptions made shows how little we understand one another.

This patterning sometimes feels mannered, the perspectival trick used perhaps once too often. But the flaw is offset by Egan’s magnificent style. Here she is on Anna’s first taste of champagne: “The pale gold potion snapped and frothed in her glass. When she took a sip, it crackled down her throat—sweet but with a tinge of bitterness, like a barely perceptible pin inside a cushion.” She is even better on sex, which Styles at one point refers to as “a pleasure so explosive, so transporting, that it justified even the risk of annihilation.” When he and Anna inevitably have a sexual encounter, he feels as if “she must be on both sides of his skin, inhabiting him—how else could she know what he felt at each move she made?” The nighttime delirium is matched by Anna’s dismay in the light of day. Styles, the first man she has ever seen naked, appears to her as “a towering stranger with coils of dark hair that seemed to pour from his chest down his torso and pool around an assemblage of private parts that brought to mind a pair of boots dangling by their laces from a lamppost.”

It is disappointing to find this wonderful language sometimes buried in that bugbear of the historical novel: a surfeit of research. We learn that boxed lunches for workers at the Navy Yard cost 40 cents, and we learn what they contain. We hear a bit too much period talk: “Say, this is delicious!,” Anna says of her glass of champagne, to which her companion replies, “Isn’t it grand?” And we get lines like these about Anna’s mother’s indifference to the war effort:

It seemed to Anna that their mother spent her days listening to serials, Guiding Light, Against the Storm, and Young Doctor Malone … It was Anna who turned the radio to The New York Times News Bulletin at suppertime, eager for news of the U.S. landings in French North Africa.

This feels less like a passage in a novel than an answer to an exam question about what people in Brooklyn listened to on the radio in 1942.

While underwater, Anna is connected to her boat by two ropes: one that dangles in the water, serving as a guidepost, and another that she can jerk to send signals. These ropes might be metaphors for the complex network of connections that underpin this novel, and the ways in which they can and cannot be shaken off. “I wanted to write a book whose connections were felt rather than understood,” Egan once said of her fictional method. This is perhaps her greatest gift as a novelist—to suggest patterns and motivations that exist at a level far deeper than rationality. Each step in the complicated dance of relationships is essential to the greater picture, yet most of those steps are not exactly what they seem. We don’t simply repeat the events of the past; rather, like the ghostly outlines of ships that Dexter Styles watches from a hill overlooking the harbor, they rise and fall, sometimes visible, more often not.

When Manhattan Beach goes astray, it is in places where Egan overexplains rather than trusting readers to put things together on their own. The novel’s loveliest scene is one that makes no logical sense but nonetheless feels inevitable. Anna turns out to have been right—the sight of the ocean does awaken Lydia. For an instant, we see it through her eyes and hear her language, barely comprehensible yet familiar. “See the sea. Sea the sea the sea the sea Kiss Anna Bird Cree cree See the waves hrasha hrasha hrasha.” The moment is over almost as soon as it has begun, but its echo endures.

This article appears in the November 2017 issue with the headline “Diving Into the Wreck.”