Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is an adventure story at heart, and I’ve always been a sucker for adventure stories. Egan’s novel set in 1940s New York is beautifully written and well researched. This is a much more traditional novel than Egan’s Pulitzer winning Visit From the Goon Squad. It is certainly not perfect and suffers from some of the typical hokey-ness of historical fiction. Yet, Egan has crafted something more than just a page turner. She captures the deep seated human longing for purpose and identity.
Early in the novel, a young Anna, her father Eddie, and Dexter Styles meet on a cold Manhattan beach during the Depression. Eddie is looking for work so he can buy his brain-damaged daughter, Lydia, a wheelchair. Dexter, a mid-level gangster on the rise, needs a bag man. Anna is a precocious child refusing to flinch at the icy cold water on her feet. She’s proud and sensation seeking. The sea provides many things for these characters—escape, cleansing, joy, death. The symbolism (because the sea is always symbolic in literature) suggests there is more hidden beneath the surface, out in the deep. Nothing is quite what it seems with these three characters, and their paths weave and intersect throughout the novel.
The next time we see Anna, the heroine of the story, she is 19 and working a boring inspection job in an office of the naval yard to support her mother and Lydia. World War II is in full swing. Eddie has disappeared without explanation, and Anna has finally come to terms with the fact that her father is not returning. Anna has little desire to become like the other girls in the office, who long for marriage as a way out of the tedium. Anna’s mother is obsessed with caring for Lydia, providing only the best shampoo and constant attention, though Lydia seems oblivious. Egan writes about young Anna:
“Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one. And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper—deeper still—until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom.”
After her father’s disappearance, Anna dutifully assists her mother, but longs for something more, something personal and all her own.
Anna sees the deep sea divers at the naval yard, and becomes determine to become one. Anna feels “a seismic rearrangement within herself.” She longs to be on the bottom of the sea, in the dark, tied to the world only by a line that supplies oxygen, but doing work with purpose that supports the war effort.
Egan’s research into the diving process and her descriptions are beautifully detailed. Anna fights against the 1940s misogyny and proves herself to be one of the best divers. This skill is essential for the plot, but is also essential for what it represents. Anna has created a new identity for herself where she feels free. She feels exhilarated by the weight of the diving suit taking her to the dark bottom. She loves the excitement of letting go of the guiding line and being completely on her own to find her way where very few have ever walked.
We all have this longing to a certain extent. Those who know God, run away at times, letting go of the guiding rope, because we want to feel our way along on our own. It exhilarates us. Those who don’t know God, are groping along the bottom in the dark, searching and searching. Oxygen is running out and the pressure of the deep is forever increasing.
It has been that way since the fall when the serpent deceived Eve in Genesis 3:5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” But we are not God. Without the guiding rope, who can we signal to that we are ready to come up? There is no swimming to the surface in a 200 pound dive suit. In fact, Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) Anna’s desperate and dangerous actions through the novel illustrate this profound searching and sickness.
Anna’s father Eddie is trapped in a different search for identity than Anna. He’s a family man in the 1930s with a disabled daughter, Lydia. His difficulty handling Lydia’s disability is compounded by The Depression and lack of work. His relationship with his wife, Agnes, quickly deteriorates. Egan writes:
Agnes cleared the toques and sequin chains from the kitchen table and set four places for supper. She would have liked for Lydia to join them, would happily have cradled her in her own lap. But that would ruin the meal for Eddie… Agnes was only half-present—distracted, as Eddie often remarked. But in caring so little, he left her no choice.
Eddie doesn’t need the weight of a dive suit to take him to the bottom. He feels as if he is already there and drowning. He’s working as a bag man for Dexter to provide for his family, but he wants change. Discretion and the ability to go unnoticed are key to his line of work. Yet, he states outright, “I cannot accept this,” thinking of his life. Eddie’s disappearance drives most of the mystery in the novel.
Of the three characters, Dexter seems to have everything he needs, but he is no different than Anna or Eddie. He moves between two worlds that must never touch. He has married a wealthy banker’s daughter, lives in a mansion on the beach, and frequents the country club. Yet, heads turn and there a whispers. He is a mid-level gangster who worked his way through the ranks. Now he is running several nightclubs, but he’s discontent. He wants a change. He wants to go straight.
Although the book is set primarily in New York, Egan doesn’t focus on the typical New York landscape and busy streets. In fact, she largely ignores the common and familiar surface to focus on the unique subcultures that consume Anna, Eddie, and Dexter. Going deeper, beneath the surface, permeates the novel. However, none of the characters ultimately find what they are looking for without tremendous loss.
In one of the most moving scenes in the novel, Anna takes Lydia to the sea, against the wishes of her mother. Anna believes that perhaps the sea will release Lydia from her catatonic state. She’s right and wrong. In an almost incomprehensible stream of babble, Lydia opens up, “See the sea. Sea the sea the sea the sea… Kiss Anna Bird Cree cree See the waves hrasha hrasha hrasha.” It is a beautiful scene of hope, but there are consequences.
Like Anna, we often believe that pushing out on our own and doing what is right in our own eyes are small victories. We are proud of ourselves. Today’s culture celebrates “becoming yourself.” There are always consequences, and they often devastate us. Psalm 118:27 says, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.” Without that light, we are blind on the ocean floor groping in the dark.
You can pick up Manhattan Beach here.