There’s a lot to learn from Jennifer Egan’s new novel, both about deep-sea diving during the Second World War and the dangers of historical fiction. The long awaited follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach is a period work whose plot wends its way from a portentous meeting on the Brooklyn shore during the Great Depression to the naval yards of San Francisco moments before Germany’s capitulation.
Unlike Goon Squad, a series of inventive, interlinked stories about rock-stars getting old, this one features actual goons, though the word is used just once, on page 324. “Gangsters”, “loogans”, “associates” or “hoods” are the preferred nomenclature.
No doubt these terms are historically accurate. Everything in Manhattan Beach appears to have been researched to the point of tedium, from the magazines being read in doctors’ surgeries in 1944 (“Magazines had been fanned precisely over a lacquered coffee table: Collier’s, McClure’s, The Saturday Evening Post”) to the brand of convertible driven by the day’s mobsters: “He never let another man behind the wheel of his new Series 62 Cadillac,” we’re told of Dexter Styles, a Vito Corleone type who dreams of joining his WASP father-in-law in the more “legitimate” world of speculative banking.
What’s more, the car is “painted Norse Gray, one of the last to roll off the line before Detroit moved strictly into war production”. In this sentence, as in hundreds of others, feelings come second place to facts.
It is Styles’s early encounter with Anna Kerrigan, the tough and canny daughter of a genial union dogsbody named Eddie, that sets the plot running. Styles, who runs a ring of nightclubs, intends to hire Eddie to oversee his gambling interests. When Eddie and his daughter visit the Styles family at their palatial shoreside home (arriving in “a ’28 Duesenberg Model J, Niagara blue”) the trio wander down to the property’s private beach. Before dipping her toes in the water, the 11-year-old Anna stares out to 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 should suddenly 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 added, with a laugh.
It’s as if he knew what was coming. A decade later, Eddie has disappeared without trace and Anna is committed to becoming the US Navy’s first female diver, repairing damaged warships in the opaque depths of Brooklyn harbour. The likelihood that she’ll achieve her goal is never truly in doubt, mainly because cartoonishly dislikable men keep telling her she won’t.
After she runs into Styles at one of his clubs, he offers to take her chronically ill sister to the beach, though this backfires (the sister dies). Not long after this, they begin an affair, which also backfires (Anna becomes pregnant). Midway through, the novel forks chronologically, mixing flashback and recollection to reveal the whereabouts of Eddie Kerrigan as well as the fates of Anna and Styles.
Not much of this is especially believable. Not because it lacks verisimilitude, which it has in spadefuls, but because characters’ emotions are bolted to Egan’s research and always seem overshadowed. There are instances of the first-rate prose that fizzed through Goon Squad: sometimes descriptive (“the bones of his throat moved like knuckles when he swallowed”), sometimes reflective (“hope became the memory of hope; a numb, dead patch”).
But these are hampered by attempts to summon feeling from nothing (“words lodged in Eddie’s ears with the preternatural weight of a truth he’d already known”) and by the numerous plot-hinges lifted not from the Brooklyn Historical Society archives but from Hollywood gangster movies. (“Like any garrulous killer, he wanted his victim to hear him out before he finished him off.”)
Despite Anna’s rise to become “the best goddamn diver in my unit” according to her lieutenant, pregnancy is one prejudice the oily lackeys and arrogant bosses at the shipyards have yet to overcome, and so Anna heads West, to California, to start anew. Meanwhile her father, thought to have been drowned, is sailing around Africa with the merchant marines.
It’s one of the better sections in the novel, stitching its learning more convincingly into a narrative that moves with some urgency (Eddie’s boat, Elizabeth Seaman, is pursued and then torpedoed by a German U-boat.) There is more peril on the sea than under it, it turns out, and for the first time we find ourselves within history and not just smothered by it.
Corsair, 448pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions