With 2010’s Pulitzer-winning novel/story collection hybrid A Visit from the Goon Squad, not to mention 2001’s sublimely inventive and prescient Look At Me, Jennifer Egan earned a place at the head table of contemporary US fiction. Both books scrutinized modern life with every tool in the box, with Goon Squad (and 2006’s The Keep) employing a whole host of experimental and metafictional techniques to push away from traditional ‘Realism’ into whatever that term might mean in the twenty-first century.
It was a surprise, then, to hear that Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, was a historical work without much in the way of genre-bending style. Pitched somewhere between crime-noir and domestic novel, the book follows the life of Anna Kerrigan, a girl growing up out of Depression-era New York into a war-time city where women are employed in the naval yard. This novel situation, coupled with Anna’s relationship with her disabled sister, worn-out mother and, most importantly, mysteriously absent and potentially mob-involved father, drives a narrative capable of straddling interior life with more genre-based features, with detective elements of urban thrillers and the rich research of historical fictional. However, while Anna finds herself spread across a range of scenes—family homes, docklands, nightclubs, crime dens—all are tied together by various forms of deceit and deception.
The opening scene finds a pre-teen Anna in the early 1930s, travelling with her father Eddie on one of his ‘work’ business trips, which appear to cast him as a kind of bagman for organised crime. From there, the narrative jumps to the 40s, to a Kerrigan household abandoned by Eddie with no explanation, and Anna working toward the war effort. Slowly, we learn that almost every character has secrets, with Anna more than most. Indeed, it is almost as though she has been conditioned by her father to lie, to occupy a slippery space whenever questions are asked, as though to mislead others is a vital part of self-preservation, a habit done often enough to become instinctive.
To say anymore risks spoiling the book, be it one based on clues and red herrings and mistaken identity. However, it bears saying that fans of Goon Squad and Look At Me, that is, readers expecting something more than glorified pulp noir from a writer such as Egan, should not be so quick to judge. The so-called ‘standard’ narrative not only contains enough signals—implicit communications, miscommunications, passive aggressions—to warrant deep investigative reading, but Egan uses both the character and setting to explore wider themes of American identity. The many-headed monster of organised crime proves a useful vehicle for such examinations, with the characters who find themselves roped into criminal systems not only justifying their involvement, but partaking in various means to obscure the fact, to conceal the truth of their crimes (from others and themselves) to the degree that their actions become abstract and ethically vague. This is just another example of the key theme of deception. Characters lying to shape their identity and gain some degree of agency. Some semblance of freedom. Be it from poverty, or preconceptions and reputation—essentially the forces of the prevailing system.
Jennifer Egan has long detailed an America heading toward some sort of saturation point, where consumerist culture and image-obsessed ideology would soon reach a critical, apocalyptic mass. While the closing segments of Goon Squad suggest a runaway escalation of technology, the tone and timing of Look At Me make 9/11 a kind of extra-narrative denouement. The American Dream, Egan seems to say, is collapsing into clouds of dust—America attacked and wounded, New York City at war—as though some falsehood has been revealed at its no longer impenetrable core. While it would be naive to say that Manhattan Beach traces back to the origin of this Dream, the novel portrays an America ready to inflate it, to display it to the wider world as an opportunity or promise more seductive than any other.
“I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever […] 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.”
Beneath the exciting plot and readable prose, Egan is still examining the modes and consequences of power in the United States. As such, Manhattan Beach is the introduction to the Look At Me‘s conclusion, the texts book-ending an American fantasy which opened and closed in war.
Manhattan Beach is out now via Corsair (UK) and Scribner (US).