‘Manhattan Beach’ Takes On Gender, Race, and Disability—But Is It Any Fun?

Two writers discuss the heavy themes in Jennifer Egan’s WWII-era historical novel

Double Take is a literary criticism series in which two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Liz von Klemperer and T.A. Stanley discuss Jennifer Egan’s National Book Award–longlisted historical novel Manhattan Beach.

The characters in Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan’s latest novel range from sailors to gangsters, bankers, and union workers. At the center of its orbit is one Anna Kerrigan, haunted by the mystery of her father’s disappearance. True to the novel’s noir-inflected atmosphere, Anna investigates her father’s life, looking for answers to the questions that have dogged her. Of course, the investigation is merely the tipping point from which conflict proliferates and allows the vast narrative to breathe. With Manhattan Beach, Egan once again demonstrates her mastery of the sweeping, multi-character narrative.

Liz von Klemperer: I was drawn to the theme of using conventional femininity as a survival tool. Anna’s coworker Nell, for example, is hyper femme, and uses traditional markings of femininity to gain advantage in the male dominated society of ’50s New York City. Upon first meeting Anna, Nell advises her to wear lipstick to work so her boss will be more lenient and let her leave the office for lunch. By the end of the book, Anna dons another disguise when she buys a wedding ring at a pawn shop to hide the fact that she is pregnant and unmarried. When she is on a train while visibly pregnant, she notices how people are only friendly and offer aid after they’ve seen her wedding ring. She reflects that there is “so much power in that slim band.” Egan has presented a world in which women’s independence is gained by their attachment or implied attachments with men, and visible markings of conventional womanhood are crucial to achieving this power.

Anna’s aunt Brianne’s femme presentation, on the other hand, is presented as comical. For example, Brianne tells Anna she has to use “all my wiles” to acquire two tourist sleeper tickets from Chicago to San Francisco. She douses herself in perfume and begins to flirt with the man behind the ticketing booth at Grand Central Station. Anna finds Brianne’s leveraging of femininity for social and monetary benefits as “stale,” a tool that does not work anymore because she is not in her sexual prime. Throughout the book, Brianne tells Anna about how she lives off suitors and trysts with successful men, but at the end of the book we find out she is self-sufficient and working at a bar and living alone. I’m still pondering this twist.

T.A. Stanley: For some reason, I wasn’t all that intrigued by a lot of the aspects of gender politics that Egan presents in her new book. I feel like I’ve read a lot about this time period and social anxieties regarding women in the workplace and women living alone. I mean, I did watch Mad Men, after all. But in all seriousness, I felt unsurprised by most of the reactions from the characters throughout the novel, save for a few exceptions which I’ll get to.

I feel like I’ve read a lot about this time period and social anxieties regarding women in the workplace and women living alone. I did watch Mad Men, after all.

Nell was mostly the typical archetype of a “kept woman.” It’s certainly an interesting trope to dive into, as well as a reality for many women throughout history — resorting to their femininity as a means to a living — and it creates many interesting questions (i.e. what’s the difference between what Nell does and prostitution? What’s the difference between both and the idea of “marrying for money?” How do we, as a society, treat these various survival tactics employed by women throughout history?), but I don’t think Egan spends enough time with Nell for much of that to be addressed or considered with adequate depth. She doesn’t seem too concerned by this.

Like you said, women’s independence is only gained through implied attachments to men, but it feels like less about independence and more a careful navigation to avoid being ostracized by society. There is no freedom, obviously, just a rigid code for the “correct” type of femininity. Of course, this correct femininity is completely confounding, as we know. Anna appears pure, but isn’t, and she uses her perceived innocence to break through gender barriers at her job. Nell uses her femininity in a “dangerous” way to extort men. Both are using what they know and what they are comfortable with to get by in this world. There is certainly something interesting about that, and in many ways these archetypes still exist today, although in different forms.

Brianne was a character that I really wish we had seen more of. I think her illusion functions similarly to Anna’s wearing a wedding ring at the end of the book — a tactic to avoid a questioning of her lifestyle. It seems like a simple survival tactic, yet hits on a theme you mentioned with Anna: the double life and the reinvention of one’s identity. The main characters have one or more identities they inhabit. Anna’s dad, Eddie, leads a double life working for the mob and lying to his family and eventually fakes his death to start a new life as a third mate on a merchant ship. Dexter Styles changes his name to erase his Italian background and maintains various lives as a gangster and family man, even giving one of his lives a name — The Shadow World.

Of course, Anna goes through so many lies and double lives, to the point where at the end of the novel she is maintaining several different timelines and lives to hide the paternity of her unborn child (one life with her mom, one with the Navy Yard, one with family who was hosting her, one with the passengers on the train to California). Besides Brianne’s revealed double identity, the other secondary character whose possible second life I was most intrigued by was Mr. Voss, who may or may not be a gay man.

Jennifer Egan Brings Us To a Forgotten New York

LVK: I thought it was a stretch that Anna would understand the nuances of racial inequality in America at the time. I also read her recognition as a reflection of her own self-interest. She wants to integrate into the white, male dominated diving program, and her awareness of her black coworker Marle does not exist outside of this context. Both intuit that they must fly under the radar to be accepted, or rather tolerated, in the program.

It’s worth noting that Anna and Marle eventually work together outside of their diving cohort when they go to find Anna’s father’s remains. Bascombe, who was barred from the navy because of his poor eyesight, also joins the mission. It’s poignant note: These three misfits band together to complete a task despite their environment’s tacit discouragement. I found it powerful that they acquired skills from white patriarchal structures and then illegally used them for their own benefit. Despite this, Anna and Marle’s fear that white men will be threatened by their partnership is ultimately realized during their mission when Dexter enters the story. While watching the three work on the ship —

His idleness made everything around him register on a scale from irksome to intolerable: Anna’s cohorts holding her ankles to guide her feet into the massive diving shoes; the Negro’s hand under her chin while they attached the harness, or whatever the hell it was. Their insularity made him envious — not just of the men but of all three of them. They were working together, two men and a girl, with evident ease. Even after the diving suit was on and she no longer looked like a girl, he was resentful of their shared knowledge, their nomenclature and expertise.

He is so threatened by watching this exchange that he demands to go dive down to search the ocean floor with Anna! This scene shows the extent to which the novel’s white male characters feel the need to maintain dominance by subordinating others. As you pointed out, Dexter approves of women who don’t act like “most girls,” but he is deeply uncomfortable with women and minorities demonstrating expertise he is not privy to.

Eddie’s relationship with race is perhaps more informed than Anna’s, as he has a realization about systematic racial oppression that goes beyond his own self-interest. When his ship docks in South Africa, for example, Eddie wonders why the bosun does not get of the ship despite being at sea for months. Once on land, Eddie quickly realizes that the blatant racism on land is a threat to the bosun, forcing him to stay sequestered on the boat. He is confronted with his privilege in a way that Anna is not, and his future decisions are informed by this knowledge. On that note, what do you think about Eddie’s relationship with the bosun? They have a tumultuous relationship rooted in race and class that I’m still teasing out.

TAS: The dynamic between Eddie and the bosun is certainly very interesting. A lot of their distaste for each other stems from a mutual misunderstanding of who the other person is, and a mischaracterization not only based on race but also on class. Some of the politics of the ship’s chain of command were interesting, although I’m not sure I completely followed it. Eddie is a third mate, who “commanded no one,” whereas the bosun “commanded a deck crew of some thirteen sailors.” So while the third mate is technically a higher ranking officer, the bosun commands a certain amount of respect and clout due to his direct command over crew members. To be honest, I get very lost in this stuff, but that’s what I gathered. They seemed to be on equal footing since Eddie acknowledges that the bosun doesn’t have to call him “sir.” Some of the politics at play here come from Eddie’s shock in encountering more-or-less egalitarianism on the ship and the bosun’s resentment of Eddie who, despite being uneducated, can climb ranks rather quickly:

He thought of himself as being kind to Negroes, but he was accustomed to Negroes who had less than he. The jumbling of races on merchant ships had been a shock at first: it was common for white men to work under Negroes, South Americans, even Chinamen. But this bosun wasn’t just better spoken and — it was obvious — better educated than Eddie. He’d had a contemptuous way of looking at Eddie that brought to mind the phrase “dumb mick.”

There are many layers at play here. The bosun’s disdain from Eddie is not wholly devoid of stereotypical assumptions of Irishmen as dumb and uneducated, but most likely also comes from a place of resentment for Eddie’s ability to climb ranks as a white man. While the bosun claims that he has no desire to climb the ranks (if he did he would be “master of [his] own bucket years ago”), Eddie sees this as posturing since he “had never encountered a Negro captain on any American merchant ship.” I wouldn’t doubt that the bosun also enjoys pointing out their educational differences to dissuade those who would try to stereotype him as incapable because of his race. Eddie certainly has his eyes opened to some of the more structural ways in which racism affects the bosun and those like him, as you point out. His naive understanding of his benevolence to other races is turned on its head and he is forced to deal with how he benefits from his race, as you point out. This perhaps brings about a deeper understanding of the bosun’s plight and from this and their shared near-death experience they can bond in a deep way.

LVK: I also want to talk about the theme of disability throughout the book. Eddie, for example, has a total shift in his perspective towards disabled characters. At first, he is so ashamed by Lydia that he attempts, as a toddler, to suffocate her with a pillow while she is falling asleep. Although he eventually stops and is appalled by his violence, it still shows a deep-rooted fear of disabled people and their needs. On the boat, however, he meets Sparks, whom he sees in a humanizing light —

Eddie was stricken with sympathy for him. To be a deviant and a cripple, without good looks or fortune or physical strength — how had Sparks managed to endure such a life? Yet he’d more than endured; he was ever cheerful.

Eddie risks his own life to save Sparks when the boat begins to sink and gets him to safety. He notes that, once on the lifeboat, Sparks has a valuable skill to offer, as he is able to operate the radio. Perhaps this is Eddie’s attempt to make up for the wrongdoings of his past. An optimistic reading of this scene, he finally sees both the humanity and societal merit of people with physical disabilities. These scenes are important because they show Eddie’s propensity for change, and transform him into a less pathetic, more likable character. I find this shift surprising and effective, as Egan initially sets Eddie up to be absent father archetype and then proves our assumptions wrong.

Lydia is, of course, the main disabled character. Her illness is both repulsive to Eddie and Dexter but also appealing, as she is described as soft, unspoiled, angelic, clean, and fragrant. Anna and her mother love Lydia unconditionally. What do you think about the theme of disability, and the able-bodied characters’ acceptance, fascination, and aversion to it? How is this informed by the voices of the disabled characters, specifically Lydia’s stream of consciousness speech?

TAS: To be honest, I’m still trying to work out Lydia’s presence in the novel and how her disability and her voice work in connection to the other characters. On some level, she is what binds all three of the characters together. Dexter would never have formed the bond with Anna if she hadn’t asked him to help her take Lydia to the beach, and Eddie is deeply connected to Lydia as well. We are not made to sympathize with Eddie’s inability to fully acknowledge or love his disabled daughter; instead we hope that he works through his fears, as he does when he is near death at sea. Anna and her mother, conversely, never waver in their devotion, care, and love for her. It might be a quick way to show where our moral center is and who still has a lot of growing and changing to do to find their way back to this morality.

We are not made to sympathize with Eddie’s inability to fully acknowledge or love his disabled daughter; instead we hope that he works through his fears.

Lydia’s stream-of-consciousness voice is obviously very connected to the sea. Her words are described as coming in “waves” when Eddie is near death and seeing her laughing and talking. The text mimics this rhythm and cadence of the waves and the ocean. The ocean has a way of cleansing Lydia and bringing her joy and peace before her death, so perhaps Lydia and her words cleanse these other characters of their wrong thinking and various sins and misdemeanors? I believe that after his time with Lydia on the beach is when Dexter makes steps to leave the “shadow world” of the mob and enter a more acceptable career. Lydia and the sea perhaps work in tandem as a powerful force to show people a path towards redemption.

LVK: Lydia really does act as figure of redemption. Because she is immobile and for the most part non-verbal, she becomes a figure who is responded to, as opposed to a character that acts autonomously. This was somewhat disappointing to me because I’m always hoping to read disabled characters whose disability is not their main characteristic, and where they are not the target of pity.

I’m also interested in how Lydia plays into recurring notions of idealized female purity imposed by Dexter, Eddie, and society at large. Dexter and Eddie express the desire to preserve their daughter’s sexual “purity,” and become viscerally distressed when confronted with the idea that their daughters could express their sexuality. Both Eddie and Dexter are simultaneously disturbed and intrigued by Lydia and her disabled body. When Dexter comes to take Lydia and Anna to the beach, for example, he resents “the project of providing this accursed creature an experience of the sea.” However, he notices that she “smelled fresh, wonderful, even, like the version of flowers that inheres in feminine creams and shampoos.” He likens her eyes to his daughter Tabby’s doll’s eyes, as they are “luminous blue and unblinking.” Lydia is constantly infantilized and described as pristine.

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Male characters also infantilize able-bodied women. While at a dinner, for example, Dexter hears a “dyspeptic-looking man” say, “We treat our girls too gently, that’s a fact… in the Red Army, girls work as medics — they carry the wounded off the battlefields on their backs.” Moments later, he justifies the fact that, “in the trades the girls are what we call ‘helpers’ — they assist a man senior to them. And we keep them off the ships.” Women are simultaneously viewed as coddled and ill equipped to handle tasks designated for men. This, to me, is an interesting symptom of how gender codes had to be deconstructed during WWII. It was in the interest of the state for women to work, but at the same time men in power were motivated to uphold negative gender stereotypes in order to maintain their own elevated social power. In other words, these men considered women useful workers, but not too useful, otherwise they threaten patriarchal structures that benefit men. Lydia is an amplified manifestation of Dexter’s cohort’s perception of women as fragile and doll-like. When Dexter meets Lydia, he is forced to confront what an actual disabled woman looks like.

TAS: I have read A Visit from the Goon Squad and remember really loving it. In comparison, Manhattan Beach disappointed me. While there were times where the narrative compelled me enough to move me forward — and Egan’s writing is still engaging, intricate, and solid — I didn’t end up feeling a connection to the characters or themes. While the characters were well defined and felt alive, I didn’t really get a sense that they had a story I’ve never heard before. I remember not being able to put Goon Squad down, while Manhattan Beach dragged quite a bit for me. There is definitely a part of me that feels saturated by WWII narratives, so this may be part of my reaction as well. I am a fan and will continue to read more of her work (and hopefully re-read Goon Squad). Maybe this book just wasn’t for me.

LVK: The narrative in which a girl/woman has to “play the game” in order to overcome obstacles presented by the patriarchy doesn’t especially float my boat. I found myself cheering Anna on when she was first getting in the scuba suit or “dress” as it’s called in the book. She reels at the weight, but persists despite her male peers jeering at her. To her boss’s dismay, she ends up being one of the few people who can complete underwater tasks. On the surface this seems like a victory but is ultimately kind of depressing. In this way, Egan’s narrative presents Anna’s strength in relation to men and the systems they’ve devised. You mentioned this earlier when you said Lieutenant Axel “pretty much only praises Anna at the expense of other women,” and I wish Egan explored more of the repression inherent in Anna’s “victories.” This is not to say Egan’s characters should act in accordance with feminist principles or be critical and aware to the degree we want them to be. I just wish there was less reveling in female success as relative to male dominance and more attention paid to the often clichéd ways this kind of narrative typically unfolds.

The narrative in which a girl/woman has to “play the game” in order to overcome obstacles presented by the patriarchy doesn’t especially float my boat.

TAS: I think I’m a bit tired of the “exceptionalism” narrative. The “look at this woman prove everyone wrong!” angle is fun and can feel empowering, but we know that it didn’t really make anyone more open to more women in the field. They quite literally see Anna as an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Egan addresses this, but rather subtly, in my opinion, and it makes the narrative a bit trite.

I also didn’t take to the love/lust story between Anna and Dexter. It felt forced and creepy. There are plenty of uncomfortable sex scenes in literature, but I just didn’t like that theirs seemed to happen only as a plot device to get Anna pregnant in such a way where her only solution is the convoluted lie and move from New York. I’m also never a fan of the “fake-out abortion” plot angle wherein a character is set to have an abortion and changes her mind last minute because she can’t imagine not having the child. To me, these storylines seem to only serve to make our heroine seem more “virtuous” and “pure,” especially when Anna is compared to Nell who we know has had at least a couple abortions and is a morally ambiguous character. Nell’s a kept woman who cheats on the man who she is threatening to expose to his wife if he doesn’t pay for her livelihood. She’s had abortions, so what better way to make our character seem wholly different and more morally acceptable even though she also has had an affair with a married man? Well, she’ll decide to suddenly keep the baby, of course!

I’ve seen this move done on several TV shows and movies, and I’m sure it happens in other books, and I never like it. There’s still this huge stigma against showing a character you are setting up as a moral center and “good person” as being capable of actually having an abortion. She can think about it, even set an appointment, but she always changes her mind last minute. It’s a dramatic beat that’s completely uninteresting and off-putting to me. But that could be simply a personal gripe as someone who has had an abortion. It’s something that always stings and feels stigmatizing to those of us who have made and followed through on that decision.

LVK: I want to feel surprised by the twists and turns of a story, but not feel guided through the plot of the book by the author. Manhattan Beach felt too neat at times. I’m drawn to stories that leave room for ambiguity, that leave me wondering at the end.

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