By now, fans of Jennifer Egan’s writing know not to expect straightforward narratives. Her individual short stories often play with form — like “Black Box,” constructed from tweet-length field instructions, or “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” told via PowerPoint slides. Her books are also construction-conscious: Her Pulitzer-winning 2010 novel A Visit From The Goon Squad is designed to read like a collection of loosely related short stories, while 2006’s The Keep is simultaneously about a fractured relationship, and the prison inmate telling the story in a creative-writing class.
But no matter where her books fall on the postmodern vs. traditional spectrum, they all toy with time. They all examine the way disasters — a drowning, a disfiguring accident, a botched prank — split characters’ lives in half, creating gulfs between their early identities and the unrecognizable people they become. In her stories, time steals people’s understanding of themselves, primarily by creating crisis out of contentment.
So it’s no surprise that in Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, she returns to a fragmented construction, and her favorite trope. But here, for once, the idea of time as the great destabilizer doesn’t seem like a fundamental theme. Instead, it’s largely a lead-in to a conventional literary mystery. Again, Egan uses a before-and-after structure to create subtle tensions, as characters try to reconcile history and the present. And again, her characters closely consider their own identities, and try, with varying success, to radically change them.
Manhattan Beach opens in Depression-era New York, where Eddie Kerrigan and his daughter Anna visit the palatial home of Eddie’s boss, Dexter Styles. Even at age 11, Anna understands the role she’s expected to play in charming Dexter and his children, easing the path for her father’s opaque, vaguely ominous business dealings. She’s devoted to her mother and her developmentally disabled sister Lydia, but Anna and her father share a kind of conniving partnership born of mutual devotion.
It’s a shock when Egan suddenly leaps forward to the 1940s, with adult Anna working at a Navy shipyard during World War II. Eddie disappeared years ago with no warning, and Anna has aggressively shrugged off her questions about his fate. Instead, she focuses on momentary escapes from her dull job of measuring machine parts — first through a friendship with a more adventurous young woman, then in a campaign to join a shipyard diving crew, then finally through a renewed acquaintance with Dexter Styles.
Throughout these developments, with chapters from Anna, Dexter, and Eddie’s points of view, Egan teases out the gap between Eddie’s familial past and uncertain present, and Anna’s childhood and adulthood. Egan creates rich inner lives for her characters, but tells her story just as much through heavily researched environmental details, from the bulky design of a 1940s diving suit to the sybaritic specifics of a beloved car. She luxuriates in physical description, falling deep into the rhythm of mundane sequences like Lydia’s bathtime, or Dexter’s rare and much-anticipated conversations with his knowledgeable father-in-law.
It’s just as well that Egan’s focus is more external here, because Manhattan Beach‘s internal calculus doesn’t always add up. At any age, Anna is a marvelously self-determined character, consistent in her doggedness and her fierce affection for her family. Her passions give Manhattan Beach its forward drive. But Eddie and Dexter aren’t as constant or coherent. Within any given scene, they’re memorably executed characters chasing their ambitions through an America altered by war. But their shifting goals can seem arbitrary and hard to reconcile with each other. And Egan rushes certain crucial segments of the book around each of them, leaving their stories undeveloped, then turning them passive where it most matters.
So it’s a relief that Egan draws such vibrant pictures in other ways. Her minor characters are economically sketched but appealingly specific, and so are the book’s conflicting eras: a post-Depression New York defined by poverty, and a wartime city defined by rapid social and economic upheaval. While Egan leaves Eddie’s disappearance hanging for much of the book, she gives Dexter and Anna room to explore who they are with and without him.
Manhattan Beach is more linear than Goon Squad or The Keep. But it has the same knack for drawing readers into the characters’ minute and painful complications, and the same habit of treating time both as a narrative playground and as a looming hazard. The only thing consistently straightforward about Egan’s worlds is the open reminder that nothing ever stays stable for long.