Pulling in and Down: On Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach”

She laughed a minute ago
shelafdamingo. 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. It is difficult for contemporary fiction to plausibly describe sex. There exist countless novels about boys and men in New York: Jonathans Ames, Lethem, and Safran Foer have practically built careers out of it. The novelist has only the pen. […] But the greater logic they were yielding to contained an inexorable will to progress. Club,   Pacific Standard, and   The Week, among others. Can you hear it? She works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard as an inspector for parts destined for battleships assembled in Wallabout Bay. […] You surprised me, I’ll admit that. “Don’t you feel cold, or are you showing off?”
Anna had no ready answer. […] In the dark paddock, she slipped from her life like a pin dropping between floorboards. Poor kid. 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. Her carnal experience does not shame her, though it does cause some paranoia. She has been playing with Tabatha, the oldest Styles child, while their fathers discuss business:
“Say, is this your daughter?” he asked. […] It quivered with a danger against which her lonely routine formed a last thin line of defense. 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. “Why the bare feet?” he asked. 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. Stay here as long as you like. Everyone simply assumed that she was. Now, Liddy. Such potent elements in the hands of a lesser writer would fall victim to grandiosity. And not even a beard.”
The second is her sexual frankness. “Words to live by,” he said. […] but soon enough, layers of clothing began to yield to the marvel of bare flesh. In the 1940s United States knowledge is currency that is mostly off-limits to women. World War II begins a few years later, but this Anna, now 19, absorbs with equanimity. I suppose I do. “It only hurts at first,” she said. 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. She fears her father may know, may have guessed, but his work had overtaken him. Now!”
Sea the sea the sea
Rinfronyoo. When she first met and married Eddie, Agnes danced with the Follies. Think that.”
“There’s no such thing, anyway.”
Anna said nothing. This is a kiss. How long, after such an interaction, will it take for these characters to fall into bed together? Her internal strife is nearly entirely centered on her absent father: Where is Eddie? The latter has never seen the sea. During her first trip to a nightclub, with a friend from the Navy Yard, Anna is shocked to see Styles. Oh yes, she sees. 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. Liddy! “When he vanished, Anna felt only relief. Kiss
Oh, Liddy! For example, the pubescent Anna, testing the waters of the book’s title, meets Styles for the first time on the beach. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the rare dazzling female vantage point, written by a woman, on life in the world’s greatest city. One man. 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. I was 17, a freshman at New York University. Once inside [the paddock], they moved with the stealthy rapacity of burglars. 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. Though she is a proud diver trainee, “[a]t dusk [solitude] closed back around her with the macabre comfort. The heroine’s missing father, sexual insight, and steely determination aren’t overstated. “I’m not an angel.” Her eyes met Nell’s, and they understood each other. 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 know what it’s like to feel tired enough to sleep, but lie down unable to coax rest into my body. “What can I do for you, miss?” he asked with remote politeness, his eyes barely grazing her face. (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. Flamingo. I don’t know what you mean, I haven’t done those things, she imagined saying, truthfully, to a faceless accuser. The description of her affliction implies cerebral palsy. Probably wondering who this stranger is. “After a while you can’t feel anything.”
Mr. […] 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 work at the Naval Yard, in Brooklyn,” Anna blurted at last, the error of this choice assailing her before she’d finished the sentence.   Look, she kisses me if I pull the blanket aside. […] After each small advance, Anna promised herself they had done enough. 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. Chinatown, the Upper West Side, Flushing, Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, McCarren Park. I’d spent years reading of everywhere I wanted to go, everything I planned to do. ¤
Nandini Balial’s work has appeared in the   New Republic,   The   A.V. Canyeerit? I don’t even know what they are. Why does a woman’s reputation, but not a man’s, “last […] [it] floats and follows you. 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. First, when their younger daughter Lydia is born crippled. 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. I went everywhere, at all hours of day and night, by myself. 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. Why does Anna have to be a good girl? Life for the Brooklyn family changes drastically twice. 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. Dexter Styles was the man from the beach. 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? Without pausing to consider, Anna rushed back to the table to inform him of it. The most significant flaw in Manhattan Beach is its submission to predictability. Clockers and Lush Life owe their brutal insight to this practice. “Withstanding arctic temperatures without so much as a pair of stockings?”
Anna sensed her father’s displeasure. […] Those are the facts. The sole cure for institutional sexism is clear to Anna: she refuses to give up, give in. Her lips are so soft. […] But your diving was never a possibility, so it isn’t one now. […]
Mr. Kiss
My darling you haven’t done that in suchalontym. There were no facts. “Loss of innocence” is common in pop culture as a euphemism for losing one’s virginity. 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. This discovery arrived in a hot-cold rush, disorienting her as if the room had flipped on its side. The trip to Manhattan Beach faded into the distant past like an apple core flung from a train window. 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. 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. Not that money was a problem. 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. OCTOBER 26, 2017
ALMOST EXACTLY nine years ago, I was a six-week-old resident of New York City. Hrasha   Hrasha Hrasha the sea
The switch takes place again, from Anna and Dexter’s conversation, to Lydia:
That wind is picking up. Lydia cannot speak, and her words mimic the sounds of what is said to her. Why did he stop taking Anna with him on business? 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. 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. 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. Still it was a shock when Anna’s desolation proved evocative of my own. When her paramour fails to appear, she grows defensive, then morose:
“Don’t tell me you thought I was an angel.”
“I didn’t. “Why would I show off?” she said. “No,” she said. 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. But those are the facts.”
Anna leaves, “her disappointment and wretchedness hardened into a stony opposition. The sex in Manhattan Beach is worthy of note because it allows Anna to practice ownership of her sexual experiences. “I’m nearly twelve.”
“Well, what’s it feel like?”
She smelled mint and liquor on his breath even in the wind. […] 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. Styles.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking his hand firmly. 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. The Kerrigan family has seen better days. It struck her that her father couldn’t hear their conversation. My pride at finally residing in my spiritual home was unfettered. How can you turn me away? The very idea of invoking it seemed absurd. Bird cree cree. 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. After a moment, she asked “Are you an angel, Anna?” […]
No one had ever asked her that question before. There was just him. 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? She hasn’t any idea who I am. Styles grinned as if her reply were a ball he’d taken physical pleasure in catching. Do you see? But what was the threat?”
I had to set the book aside, unable to proceed, when Egan plumbs the depths of Anna’s solitude. It was neither of those; more of an instinct to keep [Tabatha] awed and guessing. Liddy! Styles crouched beside her on the sand and looked directly into her face. 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. “So it is,” he said. She’s looking at you. […] The coincidence felt miraculous. I’d always wanted the city to pull me in, to make me part of its fabric. The second seismic change is the disappearance of Eddie Kerrigan. 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. I’m sorry; I can well imagine that this is frustrating. Anna
[…]
She’s talking to you. 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. It suggests that the state prior to is sacrosanct, and preferable to what comes later. Every moment of my newfound freedom was intoxicating: the thrum of millions of pairs of feet echoing with mine, the luxury of walking up to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the library. “Angels are the best liars, that’s what I think,” Nell said morosely. 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. Pleasure, however, is not abandoned. Shekissississ. The second instance of clichés as plot points is a decision Anna rescinds toward the end of the novel. He’d no memory of her, of course. “Anna, say good day to Mr. 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. I wept when Anna wakes up from misbegotten slumber, the book still in her lap, to turn out the light. You can tell she’s watching. 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 words alone express a mournful sentiment: loss, of something valuable, not gain, of something equally precious. It’s right in front of you — this is your chance. 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.