Jennifer Egan’s back with her eminently readable, if flawed, new novel “Manhattan Beach”. She’s one of America’s absolutely finest younger writers, along with Rachel Cusk, Rachel Kushner, Nathan Englander (some might include Celeste Ng in this group). What all these writers have in common is an uncanny ability to imagine and to write; their prose is exceptional and their talents fertile and growing.
Along with other contemporary writers, Egan picks an early liberated woman as her main character. Manhattan Beach, which is where The Brooklyn Navy Yard was located, centers around the character of Anna, who will insist on leading life on her own terms; such feminist novels now abound, and Manhattan Beach is one of the most persuasive of them. Coming from a second generation Irish-American family, where her originally very loving father is her main influence (her mother and her aunt are both former Ziegfield Follies dancers), Anna’s younger sister, Lydia, was born with developmental disabilities and much of the family’s time is spent attending to her. As women entered the workforce en masse leading up to and during World War II, Anna works at the shipyards and becomes the first woman diver there (the novel is based upon a real such woman; Egan’s research for this novel is massive, impressive, and makes the novel that much more persuasive). Life working in and around the Navy Yards is fascinating stuff, and how Anna acquires the begrudging admiration of both the men she dives with (including, in Egan’s words, one Negro man, who faces many of the same challenges Anna does for inclusivity) and her male bosses. The descriptions of the days at the Navy Yards and the interpersonal communications, as well as the descriptions of the diving itself, and of Anna’s discovery of one woman friend, are beautifully done, and fascinating. And when/as Anna steps out a bit in the evenings, courtesy of the female friend in question (who’s really a kind of high end prostitute), the new worlds she sees are worlds she intends to conquer, as well.
Egan has chosen to interweave a second plot, which includes all kinds of gangsters (the longshormen’s unions were notoriously corrupt in those years), and the big gangster with the house actually on Manhattan Beach will play numerous roles in this novel. But the inclusion of this secondary plot, I think, is a mistake on Egan’s part, as it takes the novel into territory often so unbelievable, and includes escapes and other gangster-ish stuff, and those incidents are often over the top, not credible, and sometimes even seem silly. They’re written admirably, of course, and the characters (the chief gangster, in particular) are generally interesting, if a bit stock, interchangeable, but I don’t think that the addition of this second interwoven theme helps the novel at all. Readers are used to suspending some belief as plots are woven, but when characters do things that just don’t resonate as real and/or possible, the author begins to lose credibility and Egan runs that risk often in Manhattan Beach. The reader’s never bored, though often skeptical of the possibilities Egan throws in. Anna’s a great character, though, and the secondary and tertiary characters in the novel are well delineated, usually feisty, and very human. I think, though, that Egan has overreached in Manhattan Beach, fun read though it often is. Anna’s risks and bold character are wonderful to follow, but the novel bites off a little more material than it should have.