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Jennifer Egan’s follow-up to her experimental Pulitzer winner is conventional — and terrific

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan Scribner

When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, it was for a showy novel with an experimental structure. Her book A Visit From the Goon Squad was told in 13 chapters, each from a different viewpoint, at a different and non-sequential point in a 40-year span of time, each one leading to the next in an implacable cascade: from the kleptomaniac to her boss to his mentor to his lover to her boyfriend to his bandmate who is also the boss from chapter two to his wife, and on and on and on. One of the chapters is a PowerPoint presentation.

Egan’s new book, Manhattan Beach, is neither showy nor experimental. It’s a historical novel, one that skips through time a bit but in a thoroughly accessible way. It’s almost shocking, even daring: after demonstrating the marvelous and exciting things she can do with structure, Egan sat down to write a straightforward conventional novel. How else could she surprise us now?

Manhattan Beach is more straightforward than Goon Squad, but just as thoughtful

Principally, Manhattan Beach concerns Anna, who as a child during the Depression idolizes her father, Eddie, and is only half aware that he is making ends meet by working as a courier for different criminal gangs. Eddie, meanwhile, adores Anna, but he can’t make himself love his younger daughter Lydia, who cannot sit upright unassisted or speak coherently. Lydia is, Eddie notes, a beauty, but her helplessness disgusts him, and he resents her for taking his wife and older daughter’s attention away from him.

Eddie disappears when Anna is a teenager, and she grows to hate him: how could he abandon her and her mother and her disabled sister? How can they all survive? When World War II starts, she takes a job in the shipyards. She works her way up to becoming a diver. And slowly, she begins to spend more and more time with one of her father’s old business associates, the one who used to represent to both Anna and Eddie the life of wealth and ease that they should have had, and who offers to Anna the possibility of a perverse kind of fatherly approval.

But don’t be fooled by the straightforward plotting: Manhattan Beach is still vintage Egan. While it might not have the flashy setup that A Visit From the Goon Squad did, it’s preoccupied with the same central question: How is it possible to live in the world, knowing that time — the titular goon of Visit — is going to have its way with all of us, eventually? That we must grow old, must die, and that all that will come after we’ve devoted our lives to other people, waiting for them to grow old and die too?

“The boys of my youth are fat, balding, and in three cases dead,” Anna’s mother writes in a letter. “I look at my face and see no real change; obviously I am kidding myself!”

“I cannot accept this,” Eddie thinks of his life, “I will not be made happy by this.” He is desperate for a change, or at least for time to stop passing long enough for him to find a way to make a change before it is all too late and his life is over.

Anna, meanwhile, longs for social progress, for it to be possible for her to dive without censure, or to live alone if she chooses to — but she finds any change to her personal life appalling. Her father’s abandonment is a massive betrayal because it uproots her life so thoroughly; in the aftermath, she clings to Lydia as “a last still point amid so much wrenching change.”

The only possibility for redemption lies in the sea, which in Manhattan Beach is a site of epiphany and boundless potential, pitiless and stark and revelatory. Diving to the ocean floor, Anna experiences “a burst of pleasure” at her newfound weightlessness — “This was like flying, like magic — like being inside a dream” — but also an “eerie dislocation, as if she were sliding toward nothing — or floating in a void.”

Eddie, who finds himself shipwrecked and stranded at sea, passes “through another layer of life into something deeper, colder, and more pitiless” before at last he reaches “the deepest truth that underlay all the rest, like stirrings from the bottom of the sea.” And looking at the sea, Lydia releases a torrent of language, which Egan renders without quotes in a sort of prose poem: “Kiss Anna / Bird Cree cree / See the waves hrasha hrasha hrasha / Seetheseatheseethesea / Kiss Anna.”

Throughout the book, Egan’s prose is as smooth and understated as her structuring: it draws absolutely no attention to itself, but there are almost no false notes. It’s windowpane prose, transparent and elegant.

Some readers, I should note, will likely take issue with the figure of Lydia, who is a disabled character with almost no interiority, and who exists primarily to serve the character arcs of her family members. It’s a rare piece of clumsy plotting from Egan, who usually knows better than to reduce people to symbols.

But the chief joy of reading Manhattan Beach lies in diving under the surface pleasures of the plot (which are plentiful — it’s immersive and compelling), and sinking slowly to its dark and unknowable depths. There are deep truths there, if you can find them.

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