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Manhattan Beach: Jennifer Egan’s deepest dive

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

Published in the Age on October 6, 2017.

In April 2009, Jennifer Egan attended a reunion of the US Army Divers Association in Norfolk, Virginia. She was working on a book about divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Second World War, and the biannual gathering was a chance to hear veterans reminisce, and to try on the suit her characters would have worn.

The ‘shoes’ of the Mark V Dress weigh 16 kg, its brass helmet 25 kg, its belt of lead blocks 38 kg. Once it was on, all she could think about was the excruciating pain in her shoulders, and how much she wanted to take the suit off, but she managed to stand up and smile, and afterwards knew she had learned something she could use, about the odd intimacy of being dressed by strangers, and the smell of rubberised canvas.

She had settled on wartime New York as the setting for her next novel in 2004 while on a fellowship at the city’s public library. On deep dives into the archives, she explored a metropolis still recovering from the Great Depression, paying particular attention to the waterfront, the nexus of its wealth and power. With Brooklyn Historical Society, she collaborated on an oral history of the shipyard, which built and repaired more Allied vessels than any other.

She heard tales of clearing Cherbourg harbour of German mines, and corresponded with a diver who signed off “Deep Sea!” in lieu of Best Wishes, but after five years immersed in her subject, listening to wartime radio serials, reading period fiction, studying arcane diving manuals and interviewing as many octogenarian shipbuilders and sailors and New Yorkers as she could find, she realised she needed to decompress.

“I did not know for sure that I would be able to write a book,” she told me, when we met for coffee near her home in Brooklyn. “Much of being able to write fiction is being comfortable to move around whatever world you’re creating, and for me it just took an incredibly long time… I felt like I was faking it, and that was really unpleasant. There was so much I didn’t know.”

So she came up for air, and wrote A Visit From The Goon Squad instead: a novel knitted from thirteen stories, about a music industry executive, his assistant, and the passage of time. It was hard to describe and initially slow to sell, with a title only an author could love, but it transformed her career, winning the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In interviews, Egan compared Goon Squad to a concept album and a Chuck Close painting, each component an artwork in its own right. It was inspired by Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, she said, and The Sopranos, a fusion of high and mass culture that summed up a novel unashamed to be clever, but also elegiac and hilariously funny.

Knowing she would never get a better shot at winning international recognition, and readers, she spent a year promoting it, before finally, in 2012, sitting down to write a first draft of Manhattan Beach by hand, on wide-lined legal notebooks. The prose was dead, and she knew it. She didn’t understand the docks or the workings of the mob well enough to describe them with authority and the “knowing, sweeping, a little bit wink-y” narrative voice she employed came off as intrusive and inappropriate. This was “the worst time,” she told me.

Egan’s earlier novels Look At Me and The Keep are trips through metafictional mazes, led by strong stories. Goon Squad famously features a chapter written in PowerPoint. When her short story, Black Box, was published on Twitter in 2012, a sentence at a time, her reputation for toying with literary forms set hard (although she often pointed out that there’s nothing “conventional” about Nineteenth Century novels and that it’s hard to be more experimental than Sterne or Cervantes.)

“I thought there would be a lot of formal playfulness [in Manhattan Beach],” she told me. “I just thought ‘well, that’s what I do,’” But at her writing group, whenever she tried out a section that jumped forward in time, it angered her readers. “Not only was it dull, it was aggravating.”

It took three drafts and three more years of research before she was confident enough in her imagined world to remain submerged. “I realised, once I let go of it, that I was actually really tired of formal trickiness. And it was wonderful to let go of it… For this novel, verisimilitude was the only approach that worked.”

Goon Squad was optioned by HBO, but remains unmade, apparently too complex to adapt for television. Manhattan Beach was bought by super-producer Scott Rudin when it was barely more than an idea, and is likely to have a much smoother passage to the screen, thanks to its likeable heroine, its appealing historical setting, and the affairs, secrets and gangland murders that keep the pages turning. It is a straightforwardly thrilling story – at one twist, I gave a little involuntary whinny of delight – and if it’s not in cinemas by 2020, I will eat my brass-buttoned Navy uniform.

The novel’s overarching theme, a preoccupation of Egan’s since the September 11, 2001 attacks, is “the trajectory of American power”. As he sends his grandson off to battle, Arthur Berringer, a retired rear admiral turned financier, declares: “We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.”

Tugs escort a ship from the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Tugs escort a ship from the Brooklyn Navy Yard

“That American confidence is more alive and well than it should be, to this day” Egan said. “But it’s such a problem. There’s a blindness to that confidence, a presumption that what’s good for me is good for you. No! That’s what teenagers think: the world revolves around them. As a nation, we’ve got to stop thinking that way. We’re getting too old for that.” She tells her sons, aged fourteen and sixteen, that being an adult means understanding you’re just one small part of a larger system. “And I feel that we’ve barely been able to understand that as a country.”

The distorted echo of American exceptionalism was a constant drone during last year’s presidential election, but while pollsters and the media expressed misplaced confidence that Hillary Clinton would win, Egan could take refuge in her research and her writing. Donald Trump’s victory, two months before she was due to submit her final draft, staggered her.

“After the inauguration, I was more paralysed with fear and disgust than I’ve ever been. I felt unable to work. It was really bad,” she said. “But then it passed. Those feelings remain but I am able to function. We all have to. We need to engage with this and stay vigilant.”

Egan has previously said being a novelist helps her process social changes she finds alarming, as she can be curious about them, rather than horrified. For instance, Look At Me examines image culture, and the fraught definitions of privacy and identity when we present our better selves for public consumption. She dreamed up Ordinary People, a cross between reality television and social media, almost a decade before Facebook went online.

Now that her boys have hit peak Snapchat, she is discovering that critical distance only affords so much protection. “As a parent, I abhor it. They’re like zombies staring at these things, and if you don’t let them, they fetishise it. I loathe all of that, and I feel afraid of it, but as a writer I feel like I can also be greedy and say ‘what can I do with this that would be interesting?’ But I don’t feel that way about politics and never did.”

She hopes her next book will be “a sort of companion to Goon Squad,” that weaves Black Box and other stories into a larger narrative, but her priorities in the coming months are a journalistic assignment for New York Times magazine and promoting Manhattan Beach (including a trip to the Sydney Writers Festival). She has been diving into it, on and off, for more than a decade, and is in no hurry to surface.

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