Hollis Kurman – Introduction to Jennifer Egan
21 February 2018, Aula/UvA, Amsterdam
‘Is there anything Jennifer Egan can’t do?’ So begins The New York Times Book Review of Manhattan Beach. This breathless review is a testimony, of course, to the uncanny breadth, depth and disruptiveness of Egan’s ability as a writer. Just when she had us all lulled into a false sense of insecurity, predicting the future while merrily breaking literary norms along the way, she surprises us with a historical novel. A novel already taking root as a classic for future generations of readers. But this power hasn’t always seemed so obvious to Jennifer herself.
By her own telling, Manhattan Beach was 15 years in the making – and she almost abandoned it several times after being ‘nauseated’ and ‘despairing’ after re-reading her first few ‘unspeakable,’ ‘bad’ drafts. She escaped often into her research to avoid the actual writing. Luckily for us, though, she didn’t give up.
Not counting ‘Black Box’, her chilling short story told in tweets, this is Jennifer Egan’s fifth book: first came Invisible Circus, followed by Emerald City, Look at Me, The Keep, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad that made her a literary rock star.
Manhattan Beach is set in Brooklyn during the 1930’s and 40’s. ‘Un-Egan-like’ and conventional in its structure, this book has been called an ‘old-fashioned page turner’ and ‘thoroughly traditional’ – yet also tweaked and crafted in her inimitable style so that, as one NY Times reviewer put it, ‘you sometimes feel she has retrofitted sleek new engines’ inside an older craft. Another reviewer called it ‘blissfully free of rust and sepia tint.’
To immerse herself fully in that world, Jennifer dove in deep in every sense of the word – in her stunningly detailed research, and in the literal deep diving that is so central to the story and to the main character, Anna.
Anna is a strong-willed girl, then young woman, coming of age in wartime New York – a world of gangsters, secrets, and volatile loyalties, set against the backdrop of the insatiable war machinery and hulking mysteries of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. It is also a world of new opportunities for women, which Anna grabs with both hands.
Anna’s girlhood, when we pick it up, is the intense embrace of family and an especially close relationship with her enigmatic father – until he disappears. An early encounter when Anna accompanies her father on a visit to a gangster’s home on Manhattan Beach sets the stage for her search – and for the craftily interwoven stories throughout the book. Egan takes us deep into the clubby men’s worlds of mobsters and power brokers, and into the even clubbier men’s world of divers at the Naval Yard that will transform Anna’s life. And vice versa.
Perhaps the biggest gift of this book (and there are many) is its cast of characters. Not just Anna, fierce and fragile by layer, honest and calculating by moment. Not just her colorful, struggling family. But every single character is nuanced and complex and interesting – all these sweet & sour people trying to get by day to day, whether they’re floating at the top of the sauce or drowning somewhere at the bottom.
This is, of course, an immensely literary book. Hillary Mantel is Egan’s benchmark for historical fiction, and the character of Anna has been called the rightful heir to Cathy in Wuthering Heights. But it is also an immensely readable book, a delightful ride – a ride with an informative, chatty tour guide at the helm. As a bonus, we learn LOTS of cool stuff along the way. The book offers a master class tutorial in suiting up and diving. It offers S.O.S. techniques for being stranded on the high seas – or at the hands of a vengeful mobster. And a user manual for naval parts manufacturing that would have made Rosie the Riveter proud. (Ironically, the woman who posed for that famous Rosie the Riveter poster, Naomi Parker Fraley, just died a few weeks ago at the age of 96.)
Egan is a gifted storyteller, and she wraps us in a silken but itchy spider web as we discover bit by bit that things (and characters) are not always what they seem – even to themselves.
In finishing the book, I found myself missing not only these lovably gritty characters, but also the lovably gritty city as Jennifer paints it. That New York City.
It is my pleasure to be able to introduce this evening’s storyteller, Diver-in-Chief, and Honorary Gangster, Jennifer Egan. After the reading, I will interview Jennifer and then open up the discussion to questions from the audience.