Critic’s Corner: Manhattan Beach as Empowering Literature

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Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Penny Belnap, Class of 2019

In her latest novel, Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan explores New York City from below sea level, turning a world that many of us believe we know upside-down. Egan tells a historical fiction fairytale, finding a moment in our country’s history to tell a fresh story through a young woman’s journey beneath the depths of the ocean. Through the eyes of an empowered female diver and a gangster, we are asked to imagine New York of the past and invited to examine the shadows lurking beneath the surface.

Manhattan Beach opens with Anna Kerrigan living in Depression-era Brooklyn. At 12-years-old, she delights in accompanying her father, Ed, on his business ventures, the first of which is to the Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles, a gangster nightclub owner who operates in the “shadow world.” Almost a decade later, the novel continues with Anna serving as the first female diver, repairing war ships and providing for her mother and disabled sister in the wake of her father’s disappearance. Egan “works in the realm of the impression:” her attention to detail backed by a wealth of research allows readers to dive with Anna into the depths of the murky sea, to feel the oppressive weight of the diving dress, to gasp for air after blindly repairing broken ships. 

Anna’s efforts to both secure the job of diver and gain respect within the industry is poignant and relevant to our current era of feminism. Her story is a fairytale without a prince; Anna is effectively orphaned after the disappearance of her father and her mother’s return home, at which point Anna makes the radical choice to remain in 1940s New York City and live alone as an unmarried woman. Her struggle to succeed in the exclusively male world of diving is heroic. Not only does she show that she can survive the dive, but she proves she is stronger and more agile than the rest of the men, gaining respect from her misogynistic boss. 

And yet, there is no romance in Anna’s story. The way in which Egan writes about sex is not sentimental; instead she places the power of sexual freedom in Anna’s hands. At 14-years-old, Anna has underage sex on a dirty rug in an abandoned cabin with a boy she doesn’t speak to outside of their trysts. Then, upon meeting Dexter Styles in her adult life, they have sex in a boathouse on Manhattan Beach. Anna feels lust and passion yet does not self-deprecate – she takes what she wants and does not rely on any man to support her. This is especially true when she realizes she is pregnant, and decides not only to keep the baby while working but also figures out how to protect her reputation while living the life she wants. 

The jumps in time are sometimes difficult to follow we plunge into the war period before we have caught our breaths from the pre-war opening. Solving the mystery of Anna’s father is artfully executed over the course of the novel, but the way in which his scenes begin to appear and are woven between the other scenes can be confusing. Egan accomplishes fluidity, however, with the constant presence of the ocean. The novel begins seaside at Dexter’s home, dives to the bottom of the sea many times with Anna, and combs the waters for Ed. 

Anna describes herself as “a corrupt interloper bluffing her way through life,” and her feelings of solitude are something we can all relate to as many of us prepare for the possibility of living alone in New York City someday soon. But Anna is no interloper – she is a genuine and empowered female character who shows us that we have the ability to create our ideal life. Is Anna a feminist? Egan does not answer this question, but she does offer a woman who creates her own fairytale and does not need a prince to do it. In writing of a time in our country when women working, living alone, and carrying a child while unwed was unheard of, we are asked to question the structures that, 80 years later, continue to marginalize women, and how, like Anna, we can fight back.  

Contact Penny Belnap at [email protected]