Alex Clark

On the waterfront | 12 October 2017

Set in violent 1940s New York, Jennifer Egan’s novel of a threesome caught up with the Mafia is a gripping mystery

On the waterfront | 12 October 2017
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Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan

Corsair, pp. 436, £

Much has been made of the American novelist Jennifer Egan’s mutation, in her latest novel, from purveyor of metafiction and fragmentary, experimental narratives to creator of a solid piece of traditional realism. Manhattan Beach tells the story of a father and daughter in New York in the years in and around the second world war: Eddie is a mobster’s bagman, who disappears without apparent trace early on; Anna is left distraught, but is also a resilient striver, growing up to become the only female diver in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. Betwixt and between them stands Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner and instrument of the mafia, swishing between cold malfeasance and a yearning for a life less compromised.

But despite its appearance of solidity, Manhattan Beach shares with Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad and an earlier novel, The Keep, a vivid apprehension of the provisionality of human life and the onus on fiction to dispose itself accordingly in the attempt to capture it. Anna is a fan of Ellery Queen, eating up his tales of detection and suspense almost faster than the library can supply her. And yet she is aware of their shortcomings:

For all their varied and exotic settings, mystery novels seemed to happen in a single realm — a landscape vaguely familiar to Anna from long ago. Finishing one always left her disappointed, as if something about it had been wrong, an expectation unfulfilled.

That sense of nostalgia — a pull towards the half-remembered past that speaks of home — is one of the chimerical attributes of fiction that Egan seeks to probe and develop, and perhaps illuminates why she once described A Visit to the Goon Squad’s twin influences as Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and the television mob show The Sopranos.

Like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Manhattan Beach tracks that particular journey out of a childhood that has been devastated by sudden parental loss; both novels combine a portrayal of the exigencies of survival into adulthood with a sense of a life freeze-framed, stopped in its developmental tracks and unable to shake off its former childhood attachments and certainties.

Anna also has a severely disabled sister, Lydia, to whom she whispers her most profound thoughts and desires in the belief — the reader doesn’t know whether justified or not — that her sister understands everything she says, and the knowledge that she will never be able to repeat them. There is a mythical quality to a detail like this, as there is in the transformative scene in which Anna enlists Dexter Styles’s help to convey Lydia to the sea shore and briefly liberates her from her physical constraints.

Back in the realist world of the novel, though, an absorbing narrative unfolds. Anna faces down the naval authorities to enter an elite group beset by danger, training to become one of the divers who repairs the ships that will sail into war on America’s behalf. The minutiae — baffling to us, in a technologically advanced society — are brilliantly realised, as Egan blends descriptions of diving dresses and lifelines with a more impressionistic depiction of the claustrophobia and the freedom of the submarine world.

Anna is the novel’s pivotal figure, but Egan also shifts the viewpoint to Eddie and Dexter, men in thrall to male hierarchies who fleetingly make a bond with one another. Their entwined stories, often told via disorientating jumps in time, are what propel the narrative forward, immersing the reader in ‘the mystery that seemed now to have been flashing at Anna from behind every Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler she’d read’. Mystery fiction as a mask for even more mysterious fact: that seems a pretty accurate way to think of Egan’s own ingenious, tantalising adventures in writing.