At first glance, Jennifer Egan’s new novel, her first since the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “A Visit from the Goon Squad,’’ appears strikingly conventional for a writer typically associated with technical virtuosity and formal innovation. “Manhattan Beach’’ is a work of historical fiction, set in Depression and World War II-era New York City, with a colorful cast of characters including showgirls, union men, sailors, gangsters. It is also Egan’s most remarkable accomplishment yet.
When the story opens, it’s 1934, and Anna Kerrigan is almost 12. She’s accompanying her beloved father, Eddie, a stevedore turned bagman for a corrupt union official, on a business visit to the luxurious Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles. There she plays with Styles’s pampered daughter, Tabatha, and at her father’s behest, forges a connection with the enigmatic Styles. Preternaturally attuned to her father’s moods, Anna relishes “the satisfaction of sharing a secret with her father, of pleasing him uniquely,” yet senses that this visit has an ominous significance.
With time, the “day with Tabatha and Mr. Styles [becomes] like one of those dreams that shreds and melts even as you try to gather it up.’’ But it will prove monumental in the unspooling of the characters’ fates.
Cut forward a few years, and Eddie has disappeared, having walked out on his family one day with no warning or explanation. Anna is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to provide for her mother, Agnes, and her disabled sister, Lydia. In her dreary job, surrounded by judgmental “marrieds,” Anna, who is enchanted with the sea, consoles “herself with the thought of escaping her shop and becoming a diver.”
Another route of escape opens up via her friendship with Nell, a sexy spitfire who introduces her to the thrills of bicycle riding, flirting, dancing, and manipulating men in nightclubs. The first spot they visit is owned by Dexter Styles; “the coincidence . . . [feels] miraculous” to Anna, but she hides her identity from Dexter, who doesn’t remember her.
After a smug doctor pronounces Lydia incurable, Anna conceives the idea of taking her sister to see the ocean. Enlisting Dexter’s help with that, she also begins to see him as the key to solving the puzzle of her father’s disappearance. An ardent fan of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Rex Stout, Anna is at once invigorated and unsettled as her own life increasingly mirrors their work, with the apparent “winnowing of diffuse danger to a single corrupt soul.’’
Anna immerses herself in mystery and danger both as a quasi-detective and as the first female diver in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, repairing ships for the war effort. Diving becomes the literal enactment of Anna’s larger quest for freedom from her gender identity, her family, her social roles. And Dexter too longs to taste “freedom from the constraints of time and space,” finding in his relationship and adventures with Anna just such an aperture of newness.
Egan deftly and movingly joins “Manhattan Beach’s’’ ostensibly very different characters with surprising parallelisms, arresting images, and an ethically capacious gaze. The connection between mother and daughter — “[t]hrough this rope Agnes felt the quiver of Lydia’s consciousness and curiosity, her trust that she wasn’t alone” — is echoed in the “umbilical cord” that tethers Anna when she dives, and the bond between sailors on the open ocean: “a skein of connection so alive that it seemed to collapse the distance and light the falling dark.” This animating string could describe the connections Egan herself threads through her characters, who attain a shared humanity across boundaries of race, gender, or moral code. The gangster Dexter Styles elicits as much empathic care as does the plucky, indomitable Anna.
The novel’s epigraph is from Melville, and those who balk at “Moby-Dick’’’s painstaking cetological excursions may well resist or skip over Egan’s similarly detailed accounts of diving gear and shipbuilding techniques. But the passages attest to the volume of research Egan has poured into her novel and, when read with an admittedly scholastic carefulness, contain a wealth of figurative implications. Throughout the novel, Egan summons the sea in all its primordial allure and exploits all of water’s myriad associations and oppositions — depth and surface, buoyancy and gravity, the unconscious, cleansing, and rebirth — in a book that shimmers with poetry.
At once a suspenseful novel of noir intrigue, a gorgeously wrought and richly allusive literary tapestry, and a transporting work of lyrical beauty and emotional heft, “Manhattan Beach’’ is a magnificent achievement. Like Melville’s Ishmael in a city of hypnotized landsmen, it discovers us in a surprising pose, “pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.”
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 438 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’