Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look at Me, described New York’s crowded loneliness by contrasting an image-obsessed Manhattan model with the willful insularity of seemingly normal people in Rockford, Illinois, and ended up predicting the next decade’s social media landscape with alarming clarity. Consider the ambitious tech entrepreneur, sitting in a Manhattan restaurant “where the air smelled of arugula and money,” as he pitches a startup called Extra/Ordinary.com—a platform that offers a window into the lives of “ordinary people” for a subscription fee, and their “extraordinary” counterparts (models, celebrities) for an additional premium. “What I’m doing,” says the businessman, “is I’m optioning the rights to people’s stories, just ordinary Americans . . . Each one of these folks will have their own home page—we call it a PersonalSpace™—devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external.” The fact that MySpace went online two years later only proves how far ahead of the curve Egan’s art was to the actual.
What makes Look at Me resonate today is its thoughtful consideration of struggles that have come to define our Internet age: interconnectivity vs. privacy, performance vs. self-invention, selling out vs. survival. Egan’s last novel—the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)—took those same concerns and, with a formal ingenuity that mirrored our fractured national conversation, explored her central theme: the lengths that people unhappy with their station in life will go to improve or escape it. Using thirteen loosely connected protagonists, a seventy-five-page long PowerPoint presentation, and a ferociously neurotic parody of David Foster Wallace (with footnotes), Egan asked a simple but important question: What the hell happened to us? As Scotty Hausmann, one of Goon Squad’s strangest and most endearing characters, asks while pitching his “comeback album” to record executives in a Manhattan high rise, “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.” The Goon Squad that comes to collect on all our debts is Time, and none of Egan’s characters beat the clock.
Unlike Look at Me or Goon Squad, Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach (forthcoming in October) is a decidedly traditional affair. Linear in its unfolding and hewing to a strict realism, it begins in the middle of the Depression and ends near the close of World War II. Egan has also narrowed her focus, homing in on three protagonists: Anna Kerrigan, a Brooklyn naval yard’s first female diver; Eddie, her mysteriously absent father; and Dexter Styles, a mob boss that Eddie used to work for. The result is a more introspective, and perhaps more revealing novel than any Egan has previously written. It’s already been included on the National Book Award’s longlist for fiction.
Though the setting and tone of Egan’s fiction has shifted, the reckless sense of exceptionalism and subsequent regret that plagued the characters of Goon Squad is still present in Manhattan Beach; life-altering mistakes are made and eventually accepted, desires are recognized as ill-conceived and yet still pursued. In the void left by Eddie’s abandonment, Anna is drawn to the dangerous Dexter out of a sense that he may know what happened to her father. Both parties seem to recognize they shouldn’t be associating—the “shadow world” of the mob is incompatible with Anna’s patriotism and feminist ambition—but associate they do, bringing about seismic changes in each other’s lives. “The idea of transformation appealed to Anna,” Egan writes. “She was tired of herself.”
The three protagonists of Manhattan Beach are repeatedly drawn to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brooklyn. Egan’s characters have contemplated New York coastlines before, most notably at the end of Goon Squad. In that novel’s strange final chapter, set in the not-too-distant future, thousands of parents and their children gather near the High Line to watch the sun set over a massive retaining wall built to protect the city from rising sea levels. As the ocean looms over them, the parents text each other their apocalyptic anxieties instead of saying them aloud: “if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”
Similarly, the hopeful seekers in Manhattan Beach ultimately find redemption by parenting. Near the end of the novel, Brianne, a recovering alcoholic, summons the will to give up booze when someone proposes that she adopt their newborn. When asked, “Would you want to care for a baby?” she responds, “It may be the only thing left that I haven’t done.” In our current age of over-parenting, it’s an interesting and timely irony Manhattan Beach asks us to consider: taking care of our kids may be the best way to save ourselves.