he novelist Jennifer Egan has said she likes each of her books to be quite different from the last, and in tone and subject matter they are. Manhattan Beach is the first novel she has published since 2010’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won countless awards including the Pulitzer Prize and sold 300,000 copies in the United States alone. It was a loose confederation of 13 stories set in the music industry, often highly experimental in form. Manhattan Beach, by contrast, is an old-fashioned historical novel about a young woman growing up in Brooklyn during the 1930s and ’40s. It has a grand, 19th-century elasticity: There are confusions of love, parties, shoot-outs, shipwrecks, and torrid, meaningful sex. But however varied Egan’s subjects and her narrative approach, her themes are constant: identity, transformation, and the desperate illusions of finding fulfillment.
Phoebe, the protagonist of her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1996), is out to discover the “real” world, one she believes her dead elder sister Faith had embraced. Phoebe thinks her present life is “nothing but the aftermath of something vanished,” and hence phony. The vanished something she seeks is the tumult of the 1960s and what it wrought: Haight-Ashbury, Swinging London, May 1968 Paris, and the Berlin of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Ten years after all this tumult has ended, Phoebe heads for Europe, following Faith’s tracks to their sorry end. In doing so, she exorcises her sister’s ghost and discovers her own real world.
Many of Egan’s characters feel Phoebe’s sense of deprivation, as though they are forever teetering on the verge of fulfillment. The tension Egan builds between a safe commonplace existence and the rash and often disillusioning life of adventure is the roiling heart of her remarkable work. When the Illinoisan Charlotte Swenson, the heroine of Look at Me, is asked where she’s from, she says Chicago, rather than the more modest Rockford. “I grew up wanting to leave,” she tells us. Leaving or remaining is generally the sole choice for Egan’s protagonists. All else is at the whim of an arbitrary fate. But it is a choice; there is agency.
Charlotte is a fashion model. Following a disfiguring car crash, she needs to reinvent herself. It isn’t straightforward. Having recuperated in her hometown, she moves back to Manhattan. No one recognizes her. She takes to drink and drugs. She is a self-confessed liar (her age is a permanent 28), and happy to deceive and dissemble. She steals names (almost no character in an Egan novel is satisfied with just one name). The fashion industry is the perfect milieu in which to address the question of what is and isn’t “real,” and Egan has a good deal of satirical fun with it—including a horrifying scene with a razor blade, in which a director of TV commercials wants to cut Charlotte’s face “to get at some kind of truth, here, in this phony, sick, ludicrous world,” he says. “Something pure. Releasing blood is a sacrifice. It’s the most real thing there is.”
Egan isn’t interested in the reductive tribal identity that seems so vital to college students and social-justice warriors. She is concerned rather with whether you are or are not, in the formulation of another chief character in Look at Me, “what you see” (the book is full of reflective surfaces: rivers, glass, mirrors).
The novel features another Charlotte, also of Rockford, this one plain and shunned and determined to leave one school for another to find someone who will seduce her and allow her also to leave plain and shunned Charlotte behind.
At night, the house thick with sleep, she would peer out her bedroom window at the trees and sky and feel the presence of a mystery. Some possibility that included her—separate from her present life and without its limitations. A secret. Riding in the car with her father, she would look out at other cars full of people she’d never seen, any one of whom she might someday meet and love, and would feel the world holding her making its secret plans.
She ends up disillusioned, but her daring echoes that of the model Charlotte—they are women prepared to take on fate.
By the end of Look at Me, there are multiple alternating narratives set in different time periods. The effect adds friction and ups the tension, and while Look at Me is to a large extent a novel of ideas, it has the drive of a thriller. It was also remarkably prescient. Published in the week of 9/11, it features a sleeper Middle Eastern terrorist, vainly attempting to resist the attractions of quotidian America (the Big Mac is a prime example: It “eases into his throat like a rat moving through a snake”). It also foretold reality TV and the tidal wave of narcissism that Twitter and Facebook have unleashed: “Being observed felt like an action, the central action—the only one worth taking. Anything else I might attempt seemed passive, futile by comparison.” It is into this world that Charlotte literally sells her name for “a sum that will keep myself and two or three others comfortable for the rest of our lives.” As in all of Egan’s stories, there is a redemptive conclusion, though at some cost, usually involving scales having slipped from the eyes of her lead characters.
The Keep, published five years later, is a peculiar gothic fiction with a prison inmate narrator. Is the tale he is telling true? An Internet-obsessed character called Danny (his most loved possession is his satellite dish) is invited by his cousin to help renovate a castle in some unnamed Ruritanian country. The idea is to open a hotel where guests become “tourists in their own imaginations.” The sense the reader has—is, I think, supposed to have—is that the book is being made up as you read, that the author is only a few pages in front of you.
It was followed by A Visit from the Goon Squad, a hybrid work that is, in Egan’s words, “a constellation of intersecting lives.” Egan mixes forms in a polyphony of voices. One of its chapters is told in the second person, another entirely in PowerPoint (interested always in the edge of things, Egan has also written a short story using Twitter called “Black Box”). Goon Squad could probably be read in an arbitrary order, except that it ends in the realms of science fiction (as Look at Me could also be said to do).
Insofar as there is a central character, it is pop impresario Bennie Salazar. We see him in the past as the member of a musical group, in the present despairing of modern pop, and in the future reigniting the career of an old bandmate. In one way or another, often only very marginally, the other characters of the novel are associated with him. His assistant Sasha is the subject of a chapter in which her uncle Ted comes looking for her in Naples, which provokes in Ted a memory of his own:
On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him quite suddenly and said, “Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly–Fuissé at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then, Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, “Always. It will always be like this.”
Of course it won’t be, and it isn’t. The “goon squad” of the title is time itself. The book asks the question implicit in the preceding novels: Is there such a thing as a self, and if there is, how is it qualified by time and transformed by experience?
A Visit from the Goon Squad is an extraordinary exercise in narrative filigree, and a stunning literary achievement, but it is also quite hard to piece together. As in some editions of War and Peace, a graphic explaining the relationships between characters would have been helpful.
Not so for Manhattan Beach, which has one central narrative, the story of one Anna Kerrigan of Brooklyn. It is complemented by the stories of two men whose lives to an extent dominate, and are dominated by, hers. The three characters share only one scene, the first in the book. It is 1934. Twelve-year-old Anna and her father, Eddie, have gone to visit Italian mobster Dexter Styles at his house on Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Eddie is looking for work, offering himself as a kind of spy who will report back on the running of Styles’s nightclubs. In taking on Eddie, Styles sets in motion all that is to follow. Styles and Anna are to meet again 10 years later, after Eddie has disappeared. Anna recognizes Styles, but he doesn’t know her. She assumes, not for the last time, a different name. There are developments.
Styles is impressed by both Kerrigans: “The toughness he’d sensed coiled in Ed Kerrigan had flowered into magnificence in the dark-eyed daughter.” This follows from an exchange between Styles and Anna after she takes off her shoes to paddle barefoot in the winter ocean. Water is important to Egan. It flows through all her work, and in all forms, from rain to snow, from lake to pool, from river to ocean. It functions both as a symbol and as an agent of change. “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever”—this, from Herman Melville, serves as the novel’s epigram. This passage is representative: “Anna watched the sea. There was a feeling she had, standing at its edge: an electric mix of attraction and dread. What would be exposed if all that water were to vanish? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm drain. Dead bodies, her father always said, with a laugh. To him, the ocean was a wasteland.”
Come Pearl Harbor, Anna finds work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. During a lunch break, she observes divers at work repairing warships and is taken with the desire also to “walk along the bottom of the sea.” Knocking out a glass ceiling in the shape of a condescending instructor, she becomes a diver. Egan’s research into the complicated early mechanics of diving, as into much else in this novel, is worthy of Tom Wolfe or Dickens, and comfortably integrated.
The book is full of Egan tropes. Anna’s story involves a beautiful damaged sibling (as does little Charlotte’s in Look at Me), an absent father (as in The Invisible Circus), a struggle to prove herself in a masculine environment (as faced by several of the women in Goon Squad), and a series of partial and then eventually complete transformations (all of Egan’s work), but then “the idea of transformation appealed to Anna.” Manhattan Beach ends as Look at Me does, with a sloughing off of previous identity, and escape.
The male characters are likewise looking for an alteration to their lives, in curiously similar ways. Eddie has “a restless, desperate wish for something to change”; Styles hungers for “a sense of motion, of new things approaching.” One of them pays for his inconstancy; the other demonstrates his fidelity in unexpected circumstances.
In a paragraph toward the science-fictional end of A Visit from the Goon Squad, a newly introduced character has written a book “on the phenomenon of word casings,” which is “a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words—‘friend’ and ‘real’ and ‘story’ and ‘change’—words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.”
These are words that continue to mean something to Jennifer Egan. Long may she strive to keep them from encasement.