There exist countless novels about boys and men in New York: Jonathans Ames, Lethem, and Safran Foer have practically built careers out of it. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the rare dazzling female vantage point, written by a woman, on life in the world’s greatest city. (Sex and the City doesn’t count.) Betty Smith’s neat, crushing prose prioritizes the internal life of Francie Nolan, a humble Irish girl grappling with a charming father who goes to an early grave, and a mother who prefers Francie’s robust brother to her.
Beneath the catastrophes, the crush of human traffic and the rumble of the subway, Jennifer Egan has found the quiet melody of a young woman’s New York. Anna Kerrigan, the heroine of Manhattan Beach, is a descendant of Francie Nolan, as is her family dynamic: she is closer to her father Eddie than her mother Agnes, and admires him for his efforts to keep the family in some semblance of comfort during the Great Depression.
The Kerrigan family has seen better days. When she first met and married Eddie, Agnes danced with the Follies. Schooled in chance during his Catholic protectory days by an elderly Dutchman, Eddie:
planned to buy a seat on the Curb Exchange, which was more affordable than the New York Exchange. Not that money was a problem. […] He bought Agnes a Russian sable fur and a string of pearls from Black, Star & Frost […] [He] hired a maid to clean up in the afternoons. He engaged a tailor and ordered suits from England and bought champagne for Agnes and a dozen others at the Heigh-Ho and the Moritz after her shows.
Life for the Brooklyn family changes drastically twice. First, when their younger daughter Lydia is born crippled. The description of her affliction implies cerebral palsy. Lydia cannot speak, and her words mimic the sounds of what is said to her. To secure a chair that allows her to sit up, Eddie quietly resigns from dockworker union business to work for a much younger man named Dexter Styles, whom the 12-year-old Anna meets in the first chapter while accompanying her father to his new employer’s home. The second seismic change is the disappearance of Eddie Kerrigan. World War II begins a few years later, but this Anna, now 19, absorbs with equanimity. She works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard as an inspector for parts destined for battleships assembled in Wallabout Bay. Her maturity enables her to be the family’s sole breadwinner, and she slaves with her mother to improve her sister’s quality of life. To discuss Eddie’s disappearance is to reveal a secret; to discuss Anna’s training and work as a diver in the Naval Yard is to rob a reader of dreamy passages about focus underwater, under pressure.
Author Richard Price — himself a New Yorker — is a master of anticipatory narration, the art of relaying a character’s response to dialogue or action while also pacing ahead in the character’s mind. Clockers and Lush Life owe their brutal insight to this practice. Manhattan Beach is the first of Egan’s novels to use the technique, and she employs it with elegance, building breathless anticipation passage by passage, chapter by chapter. During her first trip to a nightclub, with a friend from the Navy Yard, Anna is shocked to see Styles. He’s pointed out by a table companion as the club’s owner, but more relevantly, he is the sole link to Eddie’s murky post-union work life.
Dexter Styles was the man from the beach. This discovery arrived in a hot-cold rush, disorienting her as if the room had flipped on its side. […] The coincidence felt miraculous. Without pausing to consider, Anna rushed back to the table to inform him of it.
“What can I do for you, miss?” he asked with remote politeness, his eyes barely grazing her face. He’d no memory of her, of course. The trip to Manhattan Beach faded into the distant past like an apple core flung from a train window. The very idea of invoking it seemed absurd.
“I work at the Naval Yard, in Brooklyn,” Anna blurted at last, the error of this choice assailing her before she’d finished the sentence.
Styles is the catalyst for the novel’s most arresting passage, wherein Anna, lying about her surname and family, asks Styles to give her and Lydia a ride to the beach. The latter has never seen the sea. Calling upon the experimental prose that she honed earlier in A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan switches suddenly to Lydia’s aural perspective, Anna speaking into her bundled ears, as she sees the sea for the first time:
“Can you see the sea? Can you hear it? It’s right in front of you — this is your chance. Now, Liddy. Now!”
Sea the sea the sea
Rinfronyoo. Liddy! Liddy!
Hrasha Hrasha Hrasha the sea
The switch takes place again, from Anna and Dexter’s conversation, to Lydia:
That wind is picking up.
You can tell she’s watching.
Oh yes, she sees. She laughed a minute ago
shelafdamingo. Flamingo. Bird cree cree.
My darling you haven’t done that in suchalontym. Look, she kisses me if I pull the blanket aside.
This is a kiss. Do you see?
I suppose I do. Poor kid.
Her lips are so soft.
She’s talking to you. She’s looking at you.
She hasn’t any idea who I am. Probably wondering who this stranger is.
Whothisstrangeris WhoIyam Papa
Seethseethseathsee thusea seethe
I don’t want to … when will she babeltu
Afraid to leave she might
Hrasha hrasha hrasha
In no hurry. Stay here as long as you like.
The most significant flaw in Manhattan Beach is its submission to predictability. For example, the pubescent Anna, testing the waters of the book’s title, meets Styles for the first time on the beach. She has been playing with Tabatha, the oldest Styles child, while their fathers discuss business:
“Say, is this your daughter?” he asked. “Withstanding arctic temperatures without so much as a pair of stockings?”
Anna sensed her father’s displeasure. “So it is,” he said. “Anna, say good day to Mr. Styles.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking his hand firmly. […]
Mr. Styles crouched beside her on the sand and looked directly into her face. “Why the bare feet?” he asked. “Don’t you feel cold, or are you showing off?”
Anna had no ready answer. It was neither of those; more of an instinct to keep [Tabatha] awed and guessing. “Why would I show off?” she said. “I’m nearly twelve.”
“Well, what’s it feel like?”
She smelled mint and liquor on his breath even in the wind. It struck her that her father couldn’t hear their conversation.
“It only hurts at first,” she said. “After a while you can’t feel anything.”
Mr. Styles grinned as if her reply were a ball he’d taken physical pleasure in catching. “Words to live by,” he said.
How long, after such an interaction, will it take for these characters to fall into bed together?
The second instance of clichés as plot points is a decision Anna rescinds toward the end of the novel. Her negation allows her to make a choice for her body, but I have tired of literature and Hollywood’s inability to make what is considered the shameful choice. The consequences of her decision cause her to leave New York, inventing lies to explain her departure, a habit Anna heretofore had no interest in. The novel’s last 20 pages are where Anna’s thought process appears not to have stayed commensurate with her character, and it was the only moment I could not relate to her.
It is difficult for contemporary fiction to plausibly describe sex. Movies and pop songs are stiff competitors when conveying physiological and emotional responses of sex to an audience, but they have multiple tools with which to do so: words, music videos, actors, costumes, lighting. The novelist has only the pen. Curtis Sittenfeld failed to elicit empathy for her narrator’s deflowering in Prep, Claire Messud’s depiction of an affair pre-9/11 in The Emperor’s Children was dull — and just this past year Jonathan Safran Foer drew near-universal criticism for a woman in Here I Am climaxing simply because a man stared at her vagina.
The sex in Manhattan Beach is worthy of note because it allows Anna to practice ownership of her sexual experiences. Instead of infantilizing the emotions of the participants, or scrubbing away the context, Egan renders sex as a sincere, almost intellectual exploration — knowledge, even the biblical kind, for knowledge’s sake. Pleasure, however, is not abandoned. Anna first has sex at 14, with a boy from her neighborhood named Leon, in a storage paddock:
Sometimes she would wait in vain, or learn that he had. Once inside [the paddock], they moved with the stealthy rapacity of burglars. […] but soon enough, layers of clothing began to yield to the marvel of bare flesh. […] After each small advance, Anna promised herself they had done enough. […] But the greater logic they were yielding to contained an inexorable will to progress.
Anna’s maturity and sense of self are well cared for in Egan’s hands:
Anna couldn’t picture what they were doing: proof of her innocence. […] In the dark paddock, she slipped from her life like a pin dropping between floorboards. I don’t know what you mean, I haven’t done those things, she imagined saying, truthfully, to a faceless accuser. I don’t even know what they are.
No one knows of Anna’s secret, except Lydia, who “knew all of Anna’s secrets; Anna had dropped them into her ears like coins down a well.”
Anna dove headlong into sex with Leon; she pursues her diving ambition with equal curiosity and fervor, strengthened by what she knows about herself. Her carnal experience does not shame her, though it does cause some paranoia. She fears her father may know, may have guessed, but his work had overtaken him. “When he vanished, Anna felt only relief. And a week or two later, when the gravity of his absence began to press upon her in queasy bouts, she went to the paddock with Leon to forget it.”
What troubles Anna most is something she tells only Lydia: “When would she be allowed to know what she knew?”
It’s of vital importance to recognize the two-pronged relatability of such a desire. In the 1940s United States knowledge is currency that is mostly off-limits to women. The first obstacle to Anna’s quest for information is that she isn’t permitted to learn what she’s measuring at the Naval Yard, or for which ship the parts are destined. Her internal strife is nearly entirely centered on her absent father: Where is Eddie? Why did he stop taking Anna with him on business? Why does Anna have to be a good girl? Why does a woman’s reputation, but not a man’s, “last […] [it] floats and follows you. It can interfere when you least expect, and there’s no way to erase it.” On what basis is Lieutenant Axel, of the Navy Yard, denying Anna’s ambition to be a diver? Especially since this is the war effort she seems drawn to most, and proves as much by suiting up into heavy gear, going underwater to the floor of the bay, walking in the suit, and untying a bowline on a bight wearing three-fingered gloves. The heroine’s missing father, sexual insight, and steely determination aren’t overstated. Such potent elements in the hands of a lesser writer would fall victim to grandiosity. The sole cure for institutional sexism is clear to Anna: she refuses to give up, give in. When Axel rejects her even after a successful trip to the bay’s bottom, she says as neutrally as possible,
“Everything you’ve asked me to do, I’ve done. How can you turn me away? There’s no basis for it.”
“Since we’re speaking frankly, Miss Kerrigan, I’ll tell you that there was never any chance of your diving. […] You surprised me, I’ll admit that. […] But your diving was never a possibility, so it isn’t one now. I’m sorry; I can well imagine that this is frustrating. But those are the facts.”
Anna leaves, “her disappointment and wretchedness hardened into a stony opposition. […] Those are the facts. There were no facts. There was just him. One man. And not even a beard.”
The second is her sexual frankness. “Loss of innocence” is common in pop culture as a euphemism for losing one’s virginity. It suggests that the state prior to is sacrosanct, and preferable to what comes later. The words alone express a mournful sentiment: loss, of something valuable, not gain, of something equally precious. Anna is no stranger to mores: everyone around her shames girls “who’d had to depart suddenly to ‘live with relations.’ One of these […] was now a year behind her peers: a chastened solitary girl whose alleged ruin was a succulent dish the other children feasted upon.” Anna’s friend Nell, also a Navy Yard worker, is having an affair with a married man, takes Anna to a nightclub, waiting to meet him. When her paramour fails to appear, she grows defensive, then morose:
“Don’t tell me you thought I was an angel.”
“I didn’t. Think that.”
“There’s no such thing, anyway.”
Anna said nothing.
“Angels are the best liars, that’s what I think,” Nell said morosely. After a moment, she asked “Are you an angel, Anna?” […]
No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply assumed that she was.
“No,” she said. “I’m not an angel.” Her eyes met Nell’s, and they understood each other.
The coupling of sexual immersion with loneliness as forces of nature in Anna’s life puts the “toxic” in “intoxicating.” Agnes departs for her ancestral farm in Minnesota after a family tragedy, but Anna stays. My eyes clouded as she makes her way from Penn Station, her mother on a train headed west, to Seventh Avenue, then Sixth, then Fifth. Her unhurried stroll is observant and somewhat envious: “She wanted to mirror the purpose and destination that seemed to fuel everyone else on Forty-second Street: clutches of laughing sailors; girls with hair pinned and sprayed; elderly couples, the ladies in fur, all moving in haste through the murky half-light. […] How did they know where to go?”
My first year in New York I walked every Friday from my dorm near Washington Square Park, up Fifth Avenue, to the public library, which to Anna “hulked like a morgue.” She briefly feels endangered, the city capable of pulling her in and down. I’d always wanted the city to pull me in, to make me part of its fabric. I’d spent years reading of everywhere I wanted to go, everything I planned to do. Still it was a shock when Anna’s desolation proved evocative of my own. Though she is a proud diver trainee, “[a]t dusk [solitude] closed back around her with the macabre comfort. […] It quivered with a danger against which her lonely routine formed a last thin line of defense. But what was the threat?”
I had to set the book aside, unable to proceed, when Egan plumbs the depths of Anna’s solitude. I know what it’s like to feel tired enough to sleep, but lie down unable to coax rest into my body. I know what it’s like to treat mystery novels, a fully rotating pile of them from the public library, as paths to access a realm no longer in existence. I know what it’s like to become so overwhelmed with an external mystery — Anna’s is the disappearance of her father, mine was the seemingly unknown cause of my depression — that “every Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler” fades, until I was no longer reading. I wept when Anna wakes up from misbegotten slumber, the book still in her lap, to turn out the light.