This is the ninth installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.
Jennifer Egan’s new novel, her first since 2010’s prismatic, prescient Pulitzer winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad, may surprise you. In Manhattan Beach, Egan’s virtuosic skills are devoted to verisimilitude: rendering a believably detailed historical world in living color. Anna Kerrigan, the remarkable heroine at its center, makes clear that Egan’s greatest gift is seeing not forward, but inward.
As a child, Anna “could feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips; this came so naturally that she could only think that other people didn’t really try.” Anna is kinesthetic, mechanically dexterous, a tinkerer: in other words, a natural engineer. Yet in the early and mid-20th century, her options are limited, and she knows it: “Working with your hands meant taking orders,” as evidenced by Anna’s mother’s sewing and piecework business.
Later, Anna finds work in Brooklyn’s Naval Yards, performing inspections of components whose provenance is not explained to the female inspectors. “What are we measuring, exactly, and which ship are they for?” Anna asks her kind but constrained supervisor. “The micrometer was stupidly easy to use,” and despite her job’s status as more “elite” than the “girls in trades like welding and riveting,” Anna chafes against its monotony and secrecy. Soon, Anna has made a friend who widens her horizons and helps her focus on a new goal: to be a Navy diver, working on underwater ship repair and salvage.
It’s a job that takes courage, strength, and dexterity, and Egan helps us feel these requirements as we root for Anna. Inside the diver’s “spherical brass helmet,” Anna is “encased in a humid metallic smell that was almost a taste.” The tremendous bulk of the diving suit (known as “the dress”) “made her eyes swim, and the weight threatened to buckle her knees, but she heaved herself upright, each instant bringing a fresh negotiation over whether she would be able to bear the weight another second.” But when she’s asked to untie a knot while in the dress, Anna’s physical discomfort recedes as she relaxes into the “purely tactile realm.”
Despite her talents and physical intuition, Anna must overcome the mix of protective patronizing and casual chauvinism that characterize men’s resistance to her entry into the dive corps. “You see the pretty waves, the nice sea foam … But it isn’t like that underneath,” she’s told, along with a faux-admiring “You’re full of spirit.” This paraphrase of Lou Grant’s line to Mary Tyler Moore’s aspiring Mary Richards places Anna’s quest (as well as the grudging respect of her gruff superior) in the context of leading-edge feminism, but Manhattan Beach is more complicated than a feel-good tale of triumph over personal and social adversity—Anna’s not just a gendered version of the first African American Navy diver, Carl Brashear.1 Egan includes a Brashear-ish aspiring “Negro” diver, too; he and Anna both work at “fading from the scene.” Yet “the isolation they had in common isolated them doubly from each other.”
That the shapeshifting virtuoso Egan has written a conventionally structured historical novel will surprise some readers.
Ingeniously, Egan braids Anna’s story with those of her oft-thwarted father, Eddie, and of the shady nightclub owner Dexter Styles. Still, for me, it’s Anna’s book, not least because her portrait is one we see so infrequently: a woman who’s good with her hands, capable and competent in a man’s world; and who’s not just that, not only a symbol or a saint: she also lusts, resents, betrays, deceives—in other words, she’s a real person, portrayed by one of our greatest writers.
Early in Manhattan Beach, it seems Anna may earn her independence by disguising herself: she has “the flinty, taut-shouldered bearing of a man.” With “hair jammed under a cap,” she finds a new freedom from the perilous male gaze. But Egan lets Anna be a woman—a sister, a lover, a conscientious daughter—even as she confounds her contemporaries’ expectations of what women can be.
All three of Manhattan Beach’s main characters share an optimistic, all-American capacity for reinvention, despite their social constraints. From Anna’s liberation in making herself appear genderless, to her similar sense of freedom while diving—even with the burden of a few hundred pounds of gear, and literally under tremendous hydrostatic pressure, the novel encourages its readers to feel this optimism and the way it serves as a bond. Anna grows to understand her own father’s restlessness and urge for a restart when she herself boards a train going west: she “bolted upright. She had thought of her father. At last, she understood: This is how he did it.”
Egan also shows us that these reinventions don’t come easily, or without damage to those left behind. Dexter Styles struggles to become his “own man,” beyond the syndicate. Anna’s father, Eddie, prides himself on his street smarts, his intuition for networks and transactional relationships, but he is flummoxed by a Nigerian bosun (boatswain), whose “imperious accent” was “something Eddie couldn’t get used to in a Negro.” A quiet but important subtext of Manhattan Beach is that although Anna and Eddie do transform themselves, the Nigerian bosun and Anna’s closeted boss at the Naval Yard are more rigidly hemmed in.
Historical fiction enchants us with its details, its ability to let readers imagine themselves into a tangible past. It can run the risk of feeling too well-researched: emphasis on the wrong details, didactic when it should be sensory. Egan makes 1940s nightclubs, working-class Brooklyn, and the merchant marine all come alive; despite the relative familiarity of this era, Egan’s descriptions feel fresh. Expertly, she uses each milieu to reveal her characters, rather than the other way around: the naval yard that becomes a second home to Anna is, to a character less familiar with its components, “a vast machine shop housing a gristle of pistons and turbines and pulleys all juddering toward some mysterious purpose.”
Centering detailed descriptions in Anna, Eddie, and Dexter’s experiences makes Egan’s research work mostly invisible. Only a handful of scenes carry too strong a whiff of the library carrel, such as one where characters exchange the gossip of the day, dropping boldface names with expository descriptions (“Evelyn Nesbit? The legendary beauty? The reason Harry Thaw murdered Stanford White?”) that seem targeted at modern readers rather than the characters’ contemporaries.
And for Jennifer Egan—shapeshifting virtuoso whose postmodern structure and style choices have made for radical reading—to have written a conventionally structured novel set in the 1930s and 1940s, and to have surrounded her singular lead trio with some rather familiar supporting types—Anna’s frothy fun-time gal pal, Nell (“I like being dizzy!); Dexter Styles’s in-laws, a rigidly just-so upper crust family; a syndicate tough guy known as Badger; Anna’s invalid sister, overburdened mother, brassy aunt—will surprise some readers.
Egan has been rightly praised for her prescience.2 In her novels, she has anticipated social networks, expensive “tech detox” retreats, and our new forms of quasi-verbal abbreviated communication. There are those who interpret this as evidence of her technological savvy, as if—like Jules Verne—she’s dreamed up tech that will inspire engineers to realize those dreams.3 On the contrary, I believe the way Egan’s novels seem to predict the tech we’ll use and the way we’ll use it is a reflection of how well she knows people. It’s her insight into the human condition that makes her characters attach nigh-umbilically to their phones (The Keep, 2006), hide from climate change behind a “water wall” (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010) or invent a kind of proto-Facebook (2001’s Look at Me).
Egan knows that our technology and the way we use it is all about humanity.
The Look at Me product is “devoted exclusively to [users’] lives, internal and external,” and quickly expands from a method of celebrity lifestyle branding and image rehab to something for “Ordinary People.” The network’s recruiter presents this as a method for increasing empathy and connection, cutting across race and class: “Does a coal miner dream about coal? I’d like to know that!”4 Egan has portrayed this character (“white Converse basketball shoes, … a briefcase that appeared to be covered in crocodile”) as an insincere predator, signaling that this utopian fantasy is a cover for capitalist creepiness, that what we share online is a performance. And as we have come to see, our social “connectivity” hasn’t exactly increased the diversity of voices we hear, or helped us empathize across those differences.
Jennifer Egan knows us, is what I’m saying. And she knows that our technology and the way we use it is all about humanity: these artifacts being human constructions, and our adoption and use of them reflecting our personal, cultural, and societal values. Her novels allow us to be hopeful about human capacity while also dreading the ways we will betray ourselves, falsify our lives, participate in our own environmental ruin. In Manhattan Beach, she gives us not dazzling literary wizardry, not a chapter told in Finsta or a stunning twist that reframes all that’s come before, but a cracking yarn: a story of an American girl who is good with her hands, who flouts social expectations and creates a life on her own terms.
Egan’s was in fact the second novel I read this summer featuring a female character with mechanical proclivities, making me hopeful that such women might be a trend: publishing’s next vampires, boy wizards, or dystopia-forged teenagers. There’s a bit of Anna Kerrigan in Suzy, the heroine of Daniel Riley’s Fly Me.
An auto mechanic’s daughter, Suzy’s got a way with machines. When a man struggles with his ’68 Camaro—“it gargled at that high register without a release”—she offers help, and “It took Suzy sixty seconds to start the car and she hit it on the first turn of the key.” After a spell as a stewardess, she makes her way to flight school in 1972, “the only one without military experience or facial hair.” Just like Anna Kerrigan, she’s going to have to overcome a mentor with issues: “He describes flying’s capacity to make us more aware of the bigness of the world and the smallness of man, but also man’s (‘and lady’s, I suppose’) ability to push back against nature.” Just like Egan’s Anna, Riley’s Suzy rolls up her sleeves and gets to work.
The casual portrayal of dexterity and competence in female characters is welcome. In 2017 it still feels quietly revolutionary when Riley tells us that “Suzy is a good driver in the snow.” Kudos to Daniel Riley for somehow embedding Suzy’s feminism and technical competence in a tale of California ’70s stewardesses and boozy parties where uniformly blonde, tanned girls wear bikinis and shorts. A spoonful of sugar for Riley’s readers, perhaps, but a setting that makes Suzy all the more special. And I’m glad for the reminder these novels, with Colson Whitehead’s Lila Mae Watson (The Intuitionist, 1999), and nonfiction like Hidden Figures, provide: engineering aptitude and technical expertise are not the exclusive province of straight white men.
In Egan’s first novel, Invisible Circus, the heroine Phoebe’s father “endured his electrical engineering courses so at night he could play the bohemian,” sketching and painting. His daughter thinks his “engineering job at IBM … had cost him his life.” But Phoebe’s mother said of those soul-nourishing paintings: “Phoebe, they’re bad. He was a terrible painter. There was passion galore, it was sweet to watch, but he had zero talent.”5
This painful truth bomb is the trigger for Phoebe’s journey of discovery. And while part of what she discovers is that her father’s art was more interesting and worthy than her mother had angrily claimed, the cruelty of that first judgment stayed with me. So I’m especially thrilled that Egan has created Anna Kerrigan, whose soul is fed by her work, by thinking like an engineer, by risking her own neck to find and resolve a problem no one else can see.
- Brashear’s story is told in the Cuba Gooding Jr. movie Men of Honor (2000). ↩
- See, e.g., Elisabeth Donnelly, “The Eerie Prescience of Jennifer Egan’s Fiction,” Flavorwire, September 5, 2014. ↩
- Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Prophecy in Future Perfect,” Public Books, July 19, 2016. ↩
- Jennifer Egan, Look at Me (Nan A. Talese, 2001), pp. 252–254. ↩
- Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus (Nan A. Talese, 1995), pp. 35, 92. ↩