by Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2017, 448 pp.
A woman seeks to make her way in a male-dominated industry. Her acquaintances discourage her; the men in charge nearly laugh her out of the room. Still, she shows up to work. She endures the teasing and the skeptical looks. She executes her assigned tasks flawlessly. Slowly, she wins the grudging respect of her male colleagues and a permanent spot on the team. Soon enough, she’s the go-to person for the most challenging assignments, and she’s put in charge of the new recruits. When she moves away, she’s buoyed by the recommendations of her male superiors, and she has little trouble finding a new job. Having a child doesn’t stop her from succeeding—she relies on another woman for help with childcare. When she watches the news, she feels proud of what she’s done for her country, especially advancing its interests abroad.
This isn’t the story of a woman who’s a jet-setting business mogul or a politician who would be president but the plot of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach. Set on and around the New York City waterfront, the novel tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a woman who comes of age during the Second World War. Anna first appears to us as a perceptive twelve-year-old, a child who adores her father even though she suspects he’s up to no good. We next encounter Anna at age nineteen: her father has disappeared, and she’s dropped out of Brooklyn College to help the war effort and to support her mother and sister. She works among a group of women charged with inspecting battleship parts. Bored with office life and eager for adventure, she becomes a diver—we’re told that she’s the first female diver for the U.S. military. She plays a crucial role in fixing warships, and her photograph ends up on the front page of newspapers. By the novel’s end, she’s secured a permanent job protecting the nation and providing for a family of her own.
As a heroine, Anna is impressive, though hardly controversial. Her character might appeal to those who lionize women for working hard or being persistent. Anna is steely, clever, and sexually bold—the kind of woman who will sleep with a gangster and then recruit his help for a secret, semi-illegal mission. She turns heads when she walks into a nightclub, and she lives independently at a time when it was unusual for women to do so. (“Unmarried girls didn’t live alone,” Egan writes, “unless they were a different sort of girl, which Anna was not.”) She starts out working class and becomes professionally successful through sheer will.
This bootstrapping narrative is more than just an Algeresque vindication of the American dream—Egan also portrays Anna’s triumph as a victory over gender conventions and constraints. Anna suffers under a “crusty lieutenant” who addresses his charges as if they were all of one gender, calling them “boys,” “men,” or “gentlemen.” He assigns Anna to “domestic” tasks, such as mending diving dresses. Spiraling into self-doubt, Anna conjures a vision of herself as “tentative and fragile, like the marrieds,” the women with whom she worked in the inspection office. “But a roar of fury incinerated this vision like an effigy” as Anna resolves to prove the loathed lieutenant wrong, to show him she’s not like other girls. She eventually wins over her commanding officer; he later chooses her to lead a tour of his diving program, and he admits that he can’t see her “tying on a frilly apron” when the war ends. (Spoiler alert: she does not.) It’s not surprising that some reviewers of the novel, picking up on the gender politics of the book’s central plot, have praised Manhattan Beach as “feminist.”
But what sort of feminism is this, exactly? It’s one with which we are familiar from female-authored manifestos, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: it asks us to celebrate one woman’s professional success as a symbol of all women’s advancement, and even to see it as a meaningful strike against sexism. This kind of feminism encourages women to succeed in male-dominated industries, often by dispensing with typically “feminine” affect and behavior, and to claim power for themselves. It lauds women who persevere in spite of sexist superiors; it asks women to try to succeed within the system instead of trying to change it. And so Anna breaks through a number of barriers in Manhattan Beach, surpassing low expectations and winning over scornful men, but, in the end, she succeeds only for herself.
This isn’t the first time Egan has explored the particular limitations placed upon women. Her 2001 novel Look at Me features a model with a ruined face, a woman who ends up rehabilitating her career by broadcasting her life online. The novel probes the difference between surface and self while demonstrating the myriad ways that women style themselves for public consumption. Here, Egan’s willingness to play with the conventions of realism—her invented website, a kind of Facebook avant la lettre, owes something to science fiction—enhances the book’s radical questioning of beauty standards and gender norms. Look at Me is Egan at her weird, imaginative best.
Egan has gained critical acclaim for precisely this sort of formal experimentation. In earlier work, she married realism with metafiction in order to represent the surreality of contemporary life. Her novel The Keep (2006) contains both Gothic elements and a creative writing workshop. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), a set of interlinked stories about the music industry, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; it drew praise for its innovative use of PowerPoint. In 2012, over the course of nine days, Egan tweeted out her story “Black Box,” later published in full in the New Yorker. Along with Teju Cole, she is one of the few contemporary writers to make good use of Twitter.
Manhattan Beach, then, represents a departure for Egan, formally and thematically. It is a conventionally realist novel, thoroughly researched and jammed with historical detail, set roughly seventy-five years in the past. From the acknowledgements, it’s clear that Egan spent years in the archives of the New York Public Library, recording everything she could about the geography of the waterfront, the ethnic make-up of its neighborhoods, and the legal and illegal economies of the era.
Egan is showy with her historical knowledge; nearly every page contains some factoid that would only be known to scholars of the 1930s and ’40s. We learn, for instance, that “union men wore hats, and longshoremen [ . . . ] wore caps,” that the era’s dances included “the Baltimore Buzz, the tango, the Black Bottom, the cakewalk,” and that “Park Avenue women bought made-to-order dresses at Bergdorf’s and $125 shoes at Lieberman’s.” (One almost expects a footnote next to this last tidbit, adjusting the price for inflation.) This is to say nothing of the laborious descriptions of diving: we’re told in great detail about each component of the 200-pound “dress,” the specific responsibilities of the assistants (called “tenders”), and how to release pressure in order to descend to the sea floor. Sometimes these details serve a purpose—it’s worth knowing, for instance, that Anna’s father Eddie, a character who crosses class lines, switches between hat and cap, depending on whom he has to persuade that day. More often, though, they’re irrelevant, and they weigh the book down like so much excess metal on a diving suit.
The plot revolves around three characters: Eddie Kerrigan, his daughter Anna, and the gangster and nightclub owner, Dexter Styles. (With the exception of Anna, the women in the book are minor characters.) The first few chapters of Manhattan Beach focus on Eddie, his failure to make a living through union work, his turn to crime, and the alliance he forms with Dexter. The novel’s second part brings us to 1942: in her father’s absence, Anna has become the breadwinner, as Lydia, her disabled sister, gets sicker with each passing year. Anna and Dexter, who first met when Anna was a child, reencounter each other at a nightclub and the attraction is immediate—Anna is drawn to Dexter in part because she suspects he knows something about her father’s disappearance. The two characters collide, then separate: they take a trip to the beach that proves fatal for Lydia, they engage in a night of passion that leaves Anna pregnant, and they undertake a nighttime dive in search of Eddie’s remains. But it turns out Eddie is not dead—he escaped from a planned execution and joined the Merchant Marine. The novel’s later chapters tack back and forth between Eddie’s efforts to survive a submarine attack and Anna’s attempts to manage her pregnancy. She backs out of an abortion at the last minute and decides to move to California with an aunt, where she will pretend to be a war widow and raise her child respectably. Eddie, who survives a second near-death experience, eventually joins his daughter in California. It’s a little over a year later; Anna has married, and her son is thriving. The nuclear family has been reassembled, and the nation remains intact. The novel ends with father and daughter surveying the military ships in the Navy Yard and watching the fog roll in from the bay.
The book described above should be full of suspense—missing corpses! unplanned pregnancies! narrow escapes! Manhattan Beach seems designed for screenplay adaptation, and it’s easy to imagine it becoming a blockbuster. But too often, the writing renders the most dramatic scenes either comical or cliché. The descriptions of the underworld, its codes and rhythms, are overly familiar. Dexter Styles had “been a soldier for over two decades,” we learn, “observing a chain of command to ensure the prosperity and vigor of the organization he served: a shadow government, a shadow country. A tribe. A clan.” Elsewhere, the metaphors are original, but jarring. A “dark umbrella of worry” passes over a gangster’s face; Anna, remembering her first encounter with Dexter, feels the memory fade “like an apple core flung from a train window.” The result is an uneven mix of vague atmosphere and historical accuracy; it’s as if Egan can’t decide whether she wants to be Raymond Chandler or Charles Dickens.
In her earlier work, Egan found a way to be both the cultural critic and the sentimentalist—her formal innovations made trite, even conservative ideas seem edgy, radical. A Visit from the Goon Squad’s fragmentary, nonlinear form enlivens a banal message: time passing is a tragedy, and things might have been better in the past. Manhattan Beach is more fetishistic about history than it is nostalgic, but it too exhibits a certain deference to the way things were and continue to be. Hierarchies of power can be exploited for personal gain, the novel implies, but they cannot be changed. By dispensing with any formal innovation, by turning to a conventional literary genre, Egan reveals the complacency at the heart of her recent fiction.
The historical novel needn’t be traditionalist. As the Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács argued, the genre can illuminate the relationship between structural forces and the individual subject, or reveal connections between the present and the past. A novel like Manhattan Beach, set in the 1930s and ’40s, could have been such a book. Then, as now, economic crisis, international conflict, and social and political mobilizing dominated the news. And, as Egan suggests, these years were particularly significant for women. The war effort brought more women into the workplace. Although restrictive gender roles in the 1950s were in part a reaction to this change, the war experience had laid the groundwork for the feminist uprisings of the 1960s. Women organized on the left throughout these decades: they distributed pamphlets, organized actions in department stores, and took over the PTA. Women joined the Communist Party or became social democrats, combatting sexism as part of broader efforts to fight both capitalism and racism.
Egan’s book leaves out such stories. Attachments among women are tenuous; a few dissolve entirely in the face of challenges. The closest thing we get to collectivity is the shadowy mob: an organization that is portrayed as exploitative, violent, and thoroughly male. Anna manages to infiltrate this powerful network; this is what makes her singular—and successful.
And yet, for all her adventures, Anna ends the book much as she began it: sharing a home, taking care of a helpless child, warming to her father’s affections. The only difference is she now spends most of her days underwater. If there is feminism in Manhattan Beach, it’s of a particular variety: as Anna’s family reassembles on the West Coast, we learn that she’s a valued employee, making “eighty dollars a week.”
Maggie Doherty is a lecturer at Harvard. Her first book, The Equivalents, is forthcoming from Knopf.