Entertainment Books

Friday 23 August 2019

Tale of 1940s Brooklyn slips into a pastiche of classic noir

Fiction: Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, Little, Brown, €20.00

Jennifer Egan... 'the knot of
Jennifer Egan... 'the knot of "Manhattan Beach" feels tangled at times’

Duncan White

In Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan's much-anticipated fifth novel, we find ourselves in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942. One shipworker, 19-year-old Anna Kerrigan, has persuaded the lieutenant in charge to let her take the test that all prospective divers must pass, so that she can work on the hulls of ships. He lets her try only because he expects her to fail.

Wearing a 90kg (14st) brass diving suit and in three-fingered rubber gloves, she has to untie a knot. Without the buoyancy of water, the weight of the suit causes her almost to pass out with pain.

"She felt the knot's weakness, like the faint, incipient bruise on an apple, and dug her fingers in," writes Egan.

"Loosening a knot always seemed impossible until it was inevitable; Anna knew this from years of rat's nests and cat's cradles, shoelaces, jumping ropes, slingshots - things children on the block had always brought to her to unscramble.

"The knot made a last clutching effort to preserve itself, its reluctance to yield making it seem almost alive. Then it surrendered, the cords loose in her hands."

The lieutenant still won't take her on.

But with the war offering women new prospects, she does not give up. She senses the social knot is loosening, too.

Then there is another problem for Anna to disentangle: her beloved father's disappearance when she was 12, which left his wife caring for Anna and her severely disabled sister, Lydia, with Anna conflicted about whether he merely abandoned them or met a more sinister end.

Whatever it is, she suspects it has to do with Dexter Styles, his old gangster boss. Anna remembers going with him to Styles's Manhattan beach house, but she knows little about the work her father did for this shady character. She starts to look into him - and finds herself more and more interested. In turn, she brings out an unexpected empathy in Styles, who helps escort Lydia to the beach so she can see the sea for the first time in her life. Like all good mid-century tales, mystery is soon complicated by romance.

This appears to be a conventional historical novel built on intensive research - more than 10 years' worth. Egan even tried on one of the old diving suits to find out what it was like. She deploys esoteric nautical terms with gusto. There is no question that she has command of the material. This approach brings risks, though, and Egan can appear overly scrupulous.

"It seemed to Anna that their mother spent her days listening to serials, Guiding Light, Against the Storm, and Young Doctor Malone, in the company of various neighbours. It was Anna who turned the radio to The New York Times News Bulletin at suppertime, eager for news of the US landings in French North Africa."

This excess of specificity happens a lot in Manhattan Beach, and is counter-productive. When you pile on too much authentic detail, it ends up sounding false.

The book has been billed as a change in direction for Egan, away from the experimental, fragmented narrative of her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, towards no-nonsense storytelling. But Egan is after something more ambitious.

This novel isn't just set during the late 1930s and early 1940s; it's narrated in the argot of the era. In the chapters about Styles and his underworld schemes the narration veers into a kind of pastiche of Raymond Chandler; bars are "swell gin joints", women are "incomparable dames", guns are "gats". It mimics the kind of novel that was written at the time of its setting.

As the plot unravels, these noir elements take over what had been a realist story about the hangover from the Depression, about the way American society was changed by the war, and about the struggle of dependent - and independent - women against poverty and prejudice. Manhattan Beach becomes the stuff of Hollywood, with flashbacks, deceptions, revelations and wild twists.

There's even some enthusiastic fireside sex ("he shuddered as if he'd been shot"; "she climaxed like someone in a seizure").

The question is, does Egan pull it off? Has she reconciled into a coherent whole the two genres she has ended up writing in? The knot of Manhattan Beach feels tangled at times and, while there's fun to be had working at it, when it finally comes apart you find that, rather bafflingly, what you thought was contiguous is in fact two quite separate pieces of yarn. © Telegraph

Jennifer Egan will be in conversation with Sinead Gleeson at dlr LexIcon on Friday, November 17 at 7.30 pm. Tickets via eventbrite.ie

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