Stories about ships and sailors are propelled by adventure, survival, and danger. But their essences — their hulls and keels — are power and order. Nearly any seafaring tale, from Moby-Dick to The Caine Mutiny to Jaws, is about the importance of sticking to the rules once you’re out to sea, and how easily that stability crumbles, Ahab-like, in a crisis. The men — always men — are forever working to keep chaos at bay aboard a ship that’s always referred to as a she.
Power, and especially the gendered nature of it, is central to Jennifer Egan’s fifth novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s first and foremost a deeply researched historical novel about mobsters, sailors, and shipbuilders during World War II, which arguably makes it Egan’s most conventional work — especially coming on the heels of 2010’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which foregrounded its stylistic somersaults, from celebrity profile patter to PowerPoint charts. But the new novel’s meticulousness about battleships in Brooklyn and nightclubs in Manhattan shouldn’t obscure the fact that Egan is still playing with form. She’s just doing it in the hulls and keels — she’s just using the structure of the historical novel to shake up the good-girl-done-good story.
The girl in this case is Anna, the daughter of Eddie, a bagman for Irish mobsters who strains to keep his family together in the Depression years before Pearl Harbor. Anna’s mom is a former vaudeville performer who now takes in sewing; Anna’s sister, Lydia, is severely disabled and nearly mute. Eddie’s failure to maintain order challenges his sense of manliness, a struggle that ultimately leads to his sudden disappearance. Hence, Anna becomes the head of a household: “She might as well have been a boy,” Egan writes. “Dust in her stockings, her ordinary dresses not much different from short pants. She was a scrap, a weed that would thrive anywhere, survive anything.”
So far, so Scout-ish. But for Egan, Anna represents more than mere tomboyishness, because a tomboy’s brashness and precocity have no place in the world Anna wants to occupy. That would, for starters, get her booted from the snoozy piecework job she takes after Pearl Harbor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she and hundreds of other women assist with ship construction. “We Can Do It!” shouts that famous bicep-flexing Rosie the Riveter poster, but deference to routine was the order of the day for women on the docks. “Anna tried to impersonate a girl who knew nothing,” Egan writes of Anna’s survival strategy. But she knows plenty. She whispers her adolescent sexual experiences into Lydia’s ear because her sister will never comprehensibly repeat them; she angles for a job as a diver at the Navy Yard only after repeatedly assuring one Lieutenant Axel that she’ll likely fail.
Because one thing Anna knows is that Axel will say something just this officious and lunkheaded: “Water is heavy. The pressure of that weight is something ferocious. We’ve no idea how the female body would react.” Just as she’s navigating toward permission to put on a diving suit, she’s also courting Dexter, a club owner who was a regular stop on Eddie’s old bagman rounds. Dexter might have a clue to her father’s whereabouts aboveground; the bottom of New York Harbor might have a clue below. But in neither case is she free to ask the question directly to the men who are equipped to answer it.
To that end, Anna’s heroism is a kind of restrained pushiness. “Following rules had got her nowhere,” Anna thinks during a moment underwater, making a repair that’s technically a man’s job. “Passing tests had got her nowhere. In the course of getting nowhere, she had given up on some larger vision in which being good and trying to please made any sense. Why not take what she could while she had the chance?” Anna evokes the distinction between what management gurus like to call hard and soft power — clear centers of authority versus the kind of authority marginalized people have to claim for themselves, strategically and not without difficulty. Historical novelists often apply the sensibility of our times to the past, deliberately or not, but the educated forcefulness of contemporary feminism would clang badly here. If what Anna is doing is feminist, it’s feminism of a temporary, provisional sort. “Her life was a war life; the war was her life,” Egan writes.
Anna has her share of stubbornness, but what she mainly has is a mix of dumb luck combined with a grasp of how men wield and lose power. An aunt taught her that, arguing that “men were the biggest failures: rats, lice, good-for-nothings — you couldn’t blame them; they’d been bumly manufactured. The best possible outcome of marriage was a wealthy, childless widowhood.” And Dad taught her that too, his wisdom filed down to a sharp point by mobsters and poverty.
But Moby-Dick doesn’t endure because it’s a book about Queequeg squabbling with Starbuck over Ahab. Manhattan Beach has plenty of adventure-survival-danger, too, especially in an extended set piece featuring the wreck of a merchant marine boat and the survivors’ agonizing wait for rescue. What intensifies that drama, though, is Egan’s sense of how the different paths that are cleared for men and blocked for women lead to such predicaments.
And even if Anna’s authority is provisional, it’s a pleasure to experience those moments where she’s savvy enough to claim it. Her first time underwater, she calibrates her diving suit so that she neither sinks to the bottom nor shoots to the surface: “The weight that had been so punishing on land now allowed her to stand and walk under thirty feet of water, at this tide, that otherwise would have spat her out like a seed.” For a moment, she’s beautifully obscured, unscrutinized, weightless, free.
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