Jennifer Egan on new historical novel Manhattan Beach

The National, October 2017

Jennifer Egan is standing in the New York home where she has watched her family grow up. A Victorian house in a once-neglected Brooklyn neighbourhood, it is now in a desirable location “full of coffee shops and hipsters… obviously”. She has lived there for 22 years, written her award-winning global breakthrough A Visit from the Goon Squad within its four walls, and in imperceptible ways, found its history seeping into the eagerly awaited follow-up, Manhattan Beach.

“I got pretty obsessed with New York’s architecture – and realised that to a large degree it’s a 19th-century city,” says the 55 year-old American writer. “A city with such a deep mine of ideas, artefacts and treasures. A city with a chaotic, everyday mix of voices and people. So I ended up looking for these scratch marks of New York’s history amid its present.”

The result – set in New York during the Great Depression and the Second World War – is, for an Egan work, a surprisingly traditional, historical novel. Surprising, because the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad was so daring with form – one chapter consisted entirely of PowerPoint slides written by a teenage girl in the near future. In Manhattan Beach, the determined Anna Kerrigan is the first female ship-repair diver in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, caught up in a familiar world of mobsters and family secrets. And for all of Goon Squad’s technical brilliance, there is something satisfying in how straightforward her new book is. It is a novel to immerse yourself in.

“I hope that is true, because this book is not going to satisfy people who are looking for radical structural ideas,” Egan admits. “And I should say that was initially a disappointment for me as well – I thought the things I first tried with this book would work, and they really didn’t.

“So I had to recognise that some of the hopes I had for it wouldn’t be realised, too. But I agree with you, the big pay-off that comes with a more traditionally written novel is immersion into a story that does not remind you on a regular basis that you’re reading a book.

“I hope you can relax into Manhattan Beach and just be there, in that 20th-century world. Reading, for me at least, is first and foremost fun, entertaining and enriching – so if people don’t feel that way about my book I can’t blame them: I’ve failed them.”

Not that Egan found the writing of Manhattan Beach easy. Far from it. She says that years of writing more-fractured narratives meant that the technical challenge of writing a more-linear book where momentum has to be built and sustained did cause her some problems. But she had a guide, and it came in the form of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels.

“I’m not putting myself in her category, believe me, but I found it fascinating how she managed to pick on a very dusty, bookish history and make it so alive without ever playing to movie cameras,” she says. “And you realise it’s because we never get the long shots of medieval London, full of beggars and cripples. People are indoors. It’s dark. What that taught me is that the minute you start writing history with a capital H, we all go to sleep, like we did in class.”

But ask Egan why she chose this particular point in New York’s history and she struggles to come up with a reason – not least because she rarely starts her books with a defined idea of their structure. It was the same with Goon Squad, where the 13 connected stories organically grew out of pure curiosity about people and locations she had vaguely begun to think about. If Egan has to be pushed about a starting point for Manhattan Beach, though, it’s not an event in the 20th century, but the most seismic moment of the 21st – 9/11.

“I was living in New York at that time, and it felt almost immediately that I was witnessing an important step in the trajectory of American global power. That made me think about the origin of that global power, which inevitably led me to the Second World War. So I started wondering about what it felt like to be in New York at that time, too.

“Meanwhile, I was writing other books, but as I got more curious about wartime New York, I was led to the waterfront, because it was the defining feature at that time. It was crucial as a port, and the waterfront led to organised crime. Through the Brooklyn Naval Yard, I got interested in civilian deep-sea diving, which I didn’t know could be a part of ship repair. So in this way the process it was very much like Goon Squad – I followed my curiosity into all this different directions.”

Egan admits that it was “inevitable” that some early reviews have criticised her for keeping too much of this exhaustive research in the book, and it is true that extended sections on shipwrighting do raise an eyebrow. But they can be overlooked because of the sheer film-noir quality to Manhattan Beach. Somehow, with its likeable female hero battling against the social mores of the time, it manages to feel a very Victorian novel, and yet also in thrall to films such as The Godfather or television series such as The Sopranos. That, for Egan, was always the intention.

“Cinema or television aren’t traps – they’re there for me to exploit,” she argues. “I love working with genre. And to me, the Victorian novel is the flourishing ancestor I’m always trying to access when I write. It’s just as true with Goon Squad as with this book – the Victorian novel is so agile, flexible, ravishing in its possibilities. Daring, even. It was television, YouTube videos, movies… everything.”

Meanwhile, Egan keeps wider themes of parenthood, loss and female power bubbling away in the background. She has always shied away from writing thinly veiled autobiography and says her female characters tend to be “gutsier, oppositional, more secretive and less obedient”. Anna is certainly that. So the realisation that the family dynamics in Manhattan Beach had begun to mirror Egan’s own situation – it’s very much a book about the pain and difficulty of letting go of children – discomfited her.

“That sneaked up on me,” she laughs. “I’d often thought, I’ve got kids but please don’t let me start writing about parenthood. However, I actually did do that here. Hopefully Manhattan Beach is about many things large and small, as any book should be, but my children are almost 17 and 15, and I found that as I was working on the book, I was struggling with the pain of having my older son not wanting to always be with the family so much, wanting to be with his friends, to break away. I experienced an anguish about that which took me by surprise, and then I realised I was already writing a book about a father who is so incapable of handling that situation, he actually leaves his family over it.

“So yes. I have to admit that it is to some degree a book about parenthood, even though I don’t like the sound of it.”

What she definitely does like is that Manhattan Beach has already been longlisted for the US’s National Book Awards – just as Goon Squad was in 2011. You get the feeling she is ready to wow her now-global audience all over again.

“Well, it’s our job as fiction writers to provide a delight that nothing else can – to such a degree that people have no choice but to read our work,” she says. “Now that’s a very tall order, if not impossible. But why not try?”

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