The Shadow World: Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach


They were staring at him as if he’d gone unhinged. How to explain the workings of the shadow world in a way that would persuade them? He didn’t have to, of course, but Dexter always preferred argument to brute force. “I’m saying we’ve different rules,” he said. “Different practices. What can’t happen in your world can in mine. Including bodies disappearing.”

I was engrossed in Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach from start to finish. It is (as pretty much everyone else writing about it has already pointed out) the opposite in almost every way of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was clever and formally playful but which, to me, seemed insubstantial, “more like the pleasures of a tapas bar than the satisfaction of a full meal.” Lots of other people thought more highly of Goon Squad than I did, or, to put it another way, understood it better; I enjoyed parts of it but never got my critical bearings. Predictably, I felt much more at home with Manhattan Beach–though here too I was ultimately puzzled by the rapturous reviews quoted on the cover: one calls it “ravishing” and “revelatory,” proclaiming that it will “transport and transform every reader”!! (The jacket copy itself says it is a “magnificent novel” by “one of the great writers of our time,” hyperbole that reminds me of the hilarious book launch for Kafka’s Motorbike in Bridget Jones’s Diary.)

goon_squadAnyway, hype aside (and as I was once reminded, it’s not as if publicists are going to put nuanced commentary on the cover instead of high praise or pitch it to readers with modest claims such as “a good traditional novel by one of the top 30 American writers of our time”) Manhattan Beach is an excellent traditional historical novel. By “traditional” I mean it is deeply researched and refreshingly (to me) laden with the results of that work. I like exposition, I like artfully displayed period detail, I like neepery–and Manhattan Beach has plenty of all three. Since Goon Squad was my only previous experience with Egan’s fiction, I didn’t know what to expect of her as a historical novelist, or even really as a prose stylist (at least not at any length). I was glad she did not opt for the currently fashionable minimalism. She does not go into Dunnett-like detail, but both the criminal underworld–what gangster Dexter Styles thinks of as the “shadow world”–and the bustling, hi-tech world of the navy yard where Anna Kerrigan works are evoked with great specificity. It is a very atmospheric novel: Egan moves us repeatedly through several different environments, from the upper-crust world of the city’s elite to the rowdy bars where gangsters and dock workers mingle, from the grime and clamor of life aboard ship to the murkily dreamlike underwater world accessible only to divers like (eventually) Anna:

On the last of the ladder’s fourteen rungs, she paused to increase her air supply. Sure enough: the [diving] dress inflated slightly, easing the water’s pressure on her legs. She felt for the descending line, swung her left leg around its manila cord, and let it slide through her left glove as she drifted down, the weight of the dress lulling her toward the bottom, the water darkening as she left the surface behind. At last her shoes met the bottom of Wallabout Bay. Anna couldn’t see it: just the wisps of her legs disappearing into dark. She felt a rush of well-being whose source was not instantly clear. Then she realized: the pain of the dress had vanished. The air pressure from within it was just enough to balance the pressure from outside while maintaining negative buoyancy. . . . She found herself smiling.

I found all of this material really interesting, and Egan’s writing is elegant without being mannered, full but also fast-paced: it drew me right along. I read with consistent curiosity, too, about what would happen with her cast of characters, who all have enough complexity to keep their next moves unpredictable and enough humanity to make me care about them. Anna in particular is an easy heroine to root for: smart, tough, daring, but emotionally bruised by her father Eddie’s unexplained disappearance, which we know much sooner than she does is somehow the result of his connection with Dexter Styles.

diverThough there’s some mystery around Eddie Kerrigan’s fate, Manhattan Beach isn’t really built as a mystery novel; its gangster elements add suspense and occasionally give it twists like a thriller’s, but I thought it was really a novel of character, or rather of characters–tangled, most of them, in circumstances they are trying (with very mixed success) to change. The ruthlessness of the gangster story line is tinged with unexpected pathos, and Anna’s pursuit of work below the surface of the sea she has always loved to watch is both a professional and a personal quest that connects (in ways she eventually learns) to her father’s story, as if she has been unconsciously drawn all her life to the one place she might find answers.

By the end, though, I thought the novel’s dense atmosphere somewhat overwhelmed its interconnected plots. Though there’s a nice fitness to some of the twists the stories take, I don’t have much sense of what it all added up to. Though it is unified artistically around motifs of drowning, diving, and rising from the deeps (literally as well as metaphorically), I’m not sure its elements converge on any particular idea or vision of the world. They don’t need to, of course, for Manhattan Beach to be a good novel, but for me a great novel goes that step further, providing not just effective plot, characters, and setting but also in some way a revelation. The ending of Manhattan Beach is not revelatory: in fact, I found it a bit sentimental and also a bit too pat. Still, overall I liked the novel a lot and read it with pleasure.

Weekend Miscellany: Other People’s Points of View

I was a bit snarky about both A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Professor. Other people have read them quite differently–or at least more favorably. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Olivia Laing’s recent review of The Professor in the Guardian:

If the spleen only went one way this sort of thing would be vindictive, even nasty, but Castle is too self-aware a critic to carry out anything so brutish as a hatchet job. She persistently casts herself in ridiculous, demeaning roles (“I, her forty-something slave girl from San Francisco”), yelping at one point: “Caveat lector: Lilliputian on the rampage!” The self-belittling reaches its apotheosis in the most substantial essay here, “The Professor”, an extraordinarily gleeful account of Castle’s damaging relationship with a much older woman when she was a grad student in the midwest.

In this real-life retelling of Bluebeard, The Professor, complete with “the Very Weird Long Grey Braid; the Withered Leg, the Loaded Pistol in the Bedside Drawer; the Room in Her House One Was Never Allowed to Enter”, is pitted against the youthful “T-Ball”, a naive and horribly intellectually ambitious baby dyke. The result, predictably enough, is carnage, albeit of a kind that anyone who’s ever loved and lost might experience considerable cathartic pleasure to encounter. (read the rest here)

Laing concludes, “As Castle says of her period of academic specialisation, the 18th century, one can sense beyond the “rococo lightness and drollery… a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core”. That same hum is certainly audible in these pages, though you might be hard pressed to catch it over your own delighted cackles.” I was hard pressed to catch it, but because I was recoiling from the page, not cackling delightedly. I agree more with Elaine Showalter’s earlier Guardian review (here). Though Showalter too is more appreciative of Castle’s “vengeful side” than I am, she identifies aspects of the collection that I too thought were interesting and engaging:

Castle is not limited by the malicious muse. In other essays she writes stirringly about the first world war, and the feminine fascination with and envy of male heroism, as well as about 9/11 and its impact on popular culture. She contends frankly with her fear of “being swept back – annihilatingly – into the world of ‘my mother’s taste’.” In a wonderful sentence about her mother, Mavis, she sums up an entire feminist dilemma: “my whole life up to now . . . has from one angle been a fairly heartless repudiation of maternal sentimentality: all the bright, powerless, feminine things.”

In The New Republic, Ross Posnock celebrates Castle’s “turn to memoir”:

Castle partakes of the culture’s sense of entitled contempt of the “English professor,” while also complicating that entitlement. Her essays turn her painfully won capacity to see herself and the world “mock-heroically” into a source of bracing truth-telling that, in turn, becomes an unexpected source of insight into the power of literature, art, and music in shaping a life. . . .

Castle learned mock-heroism the hard way—above all, as the title essay recounts, by surviving a humiliating, scalding, passionate affair as a graduate student with a self-intoxicated, regal, promiscuous female professor—a “connoisseur, a sensualist, skilled in the arts of homosexual love,” a wounding eventually and partially healed by abundant reading in eighteenth-century satire. . . .

Getting dirtied and staying dirty encouraged Castle not only to take a “debunking attitude toward the self,” but also to become insouciant about seriousness and easy about “self-burlesque.” She can be absolutely hilarious. And this suppleness puts her on both sides of the public/academy conflict: she expresses the general public’s contempt for the academic literary intellectual and the genteel sense of superior refinement that the profession cultivates in its members. At MLA she bristles at a “drifting throng of rabbity academics”—an “unprepossessing” mass of “tweedy jackets, sensible shoes”—and also describes herself as an “effete little twit” full of “aristocratic disdain” not only toward her collegial brethren but particularly, in her youth, toward her earnest lesbian separatist sisters.

I think Posnock is right that the book’s appeal (for those who like it) lies at least partly in Castle’s participation in anti-academic satire. I’m not as comfortable with what he calls her “suppleness,” however: another word for that could be “inconsistency,” or even “hypocrisy”. And I honestly don’t see how it is the case that this book

understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.

Nothing in it that spoke to my own experience of “academic vocation,” and if Posnock’s last comment about “that soul-destroying cardboard figure” refers to the English professor as a general identity rather than a specific English professor such as the one with whom Castle had her awful love affair–if he means all of us, in other words, then I resent the implication and Castle should too, except that I don’t see where in The Professor she has done anything to show English professors as soul-enhancing.

And the final offering in my sample of other people’s opinions of The Professor, is Sam Anderson in New York Magazine (here). Anderson pairs The Professor with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (which I also read and didn’t much like–though for different reasons):

Part of the pleasure of these books is seeing a figure of genteel cultural authority—the literary scholar—comically reduced. Castle, in particular, is vulnerable and neurotic. She blows writing deadlines and suffers from “astronomical credit card debt.” She describes herself as “moody and mean-spirited”; “pale, criminal, a bit bloated”; a “japing, nay-saying, emotionally stunted creature”; and a “bullet-ridden blob.” She has a panic attack in a rental car and explosive diarrhea in the sea off Sicily. (“I am breaking every law of God and Man,” she thinks.) She decides, after a waiter calls her “sir,” that she is destined to “suffer the lonely death of the sexual pervert.” (In a recent interview with The Nation, Castle described her persona in these essays as “self-burlesque … a conscious casting off of a sort of authority or pedantry or certainty.”)

Both Batuman and Castle come across as supremely lovable dorks. As a grad student, Castle used to write some final papers during the first week of class, then brag about it to her classmates. (She seems less proud of this today.) Batuman once brought her bathroom scale to the library to weigh Tolstoy’s Collected Works, ten volumes at a time. (It weighs, apparently, as much as a newborn beluga whale.) Even their faults are lovably dorky.

Here we go again with the anti-academic thing: why exactly is it such a “pleasure” to comically reduce the literary scholar, I wonder? Is it just a grown-up manifestation of the typical childish rebellion against teachers? A kind of erudite adolescent angst? What does it really have to do with anything that the woman who Castle became so disastrously involved with was a professor?

None of these reviews makes me keen to reread The Professor. Similarly, none of the pieces I’ve looked up on A Visit to the Goon Squad will send me back to it–yet, anyway. I’ll hang on to it, of course. Maybe it’s moment will come for me. Maybe. Some prettty energetic discussions of it took place in the posts and comments at The Morning News’s Tournament of Books. Here’s a bit from Anthony Doerr’s judging round, in which Good Squad was thrown in the ring against another book world favorite, Skippy Dies (which would have got my vote):

Egan’s book is a terrific feat of ventriloquism, composed of 13 short stories that seesaw back and forth through time and interconnect multiple characters, particularly the lives of a music producer named Bennie and his assistant, Sasha.

But it’s so much more than my lame synopsis—and more than a sum of diverse narrators and characters. The structure of Goon Squad reminds me in many ways of Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a lovely collection of six stories in which a minor character in one story becomes the narrator of the next. In Goon Squad, Egan focuses on multiplicity as well as totality; her approach isn’t about eliminating everything that’s irrelevant to a central narrative in the way so many novels are. It’s more about dropping a giant, rotating, mirror ball into a pair of lives and watching it turn.

Silber called her book a “ring of stories” and that’s how I began to think of Goon Squad—as a ring. As you travel around the ring, you watch Bennie and Sasha be kids, compromise, grow up, fail, have kids, make strides, fail again. “Time’s a goon, right?” Bennie says at one point. “You gonna let that goon push you around?”

By the time I got through the book’s penultimate chapter, a breathtaking short story told entirely through PowerPoint slides, there were tears in my eyes.

Elif Batuman took on Goon Squad vs. The Finkler Question in the quarter-finals. At first she reacts a bit as I did, with skepticism about the power of the form of interlinked stories. But like many other reviewers I read, she was won over:

In the middle of Goon Squad’s fourth story, which involves a love triangle with a couple and their guide on a safari—a play on Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—I suddenly realized that I was reading a brilliant and wonderful book. The “goon” in the title, it turns out, is time—time that brutalizes, and ravages all things. Most of the recurring characters experience serious reversals and undulations of fortune—successes become spectacular failures and vice versa—in a way that somehow seems not artificial, but incredibly true. Egan makes you feel how time bends stories out of shape, gives them new, incongruous, beautiful, retrospectively inevitable endings. This is the kind of feeling you get from Proust or Tolstoy, but over hundreds, thousands of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it from a short-story collection. “Virtuosity” is actually an apt word: You feel that Egan got so good at the form that she managed to get it to transcend itself—to make it historical, to make it do the work of the novel.

It’s also very much “a book of our times,” a book of our historical moment. I’m thinking less of the story told entirely in PowerPoint than of the character who predicts the coming of Facebook: “The days of losing touch are almost gone,” he says. “We’re going to meet again in a different place. Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us. I picture it like Judgment Day. We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form.” Goon Squad shows how, in a certain sense, we can’t lose track of people anymore—even as, in another, older sense, we eventually lose everything and everyone. It’s a beautiful, valuable achievement.

Huh. Then in the Zombie Round, Rahdika Jones says the PowerPoint chapter made her cry. Maybe I’m just not a reader of our historical moment? If it’s a “book of our times,” why does it have so little in common with anything I know or care about? Maybe the New Yorker story origins are a hint: there’s something almost cliquish about Goon Squad and its fans that relies on a knowingness and a taste for a certain flavor of fiction (clever, artful, self-conscious, and hip). I did appreciate C. Max Magee’s description of Goon Squad in his judging of the Championship Round (in which he ended up giving the nod to Freedom):

Calling Goon Squad a novel in stories, as it is sometimes billed, does it a disservice. The book is more like a scaffold. Each story is a platform connected by the structure Egan has erected, but, in the form of little bits of exposition within the stories, she also sends ladders shooting higher and ropes hanging lower, moving the characters decades into future where they may or may not meet again. The scaffold suggests the heft of a much larger design behind it. And, to extend this metaphor further, isn’t it true that an intricate, possibly hazardous scaffolding is sometimes more interesting to behold than the massive building to which it is affixed?

That’s nicely put, a persuasive way to describe the book’s structure. My answer to his final rhetorical question, though, is “no”–or at least, not unless the building is a failure, in which case our interest in the scaffolding is partly that of a pathologist. What I really want is the edifice, not the artifice.

The Goon Squad visited; I was not at home.

goon_squadWhat to do when you read a critically acclaimed, award-winning, highly successful and popular novel and are unmoved?

That’s my problem on finishing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad—finishing belatedly, because (and this is a symptom of my reading experience) I read the penultimate chapter (and I should say “read” the penultimate chapter, as it’s the one “written” [“composed” seems a better term, but Egan talks about “writing” it] in PowerPoint slides) several days ago and then the book sat around giving me no sense of urgency about getting to the endso tonight I whipped (a bit carelessly, I admit) through to the end so I could get back to Testament of Friendship and then move on to Cakes and Ale without guilt.

It’s not that I didn’t like the novel. Mostly, I enjoyed it. It’s written in polished, sometimes evocative, often witty prose. The characters are well drawn. The structure is ingenious. The shifts in point of view and the manipulation of chronology are technically skillful. The PowerPoint chapter is ingeniousbut the whole time I was going through it I kept thinking of my 7th-grade autobiography project. One required component was a character sketch, and (feeling ingenious) I inserted several line drawings (sketches!), outlines of a girl’s shape (I traced a paper doll, I think), on which I wrote key words that I thought described my character. In her evaluation, my teacher wrote: “Character sketches: original. However, you have the talent to write this interestingly in paragraph or story form.” So does Jennifer Egan.

So what am I missing, or what is the novel missing? Though it’s a reasonable 340 pages, Goon Squad felt insubstantial, to me, which is not an issue of length so much as an issue of ideas. What’s the idea of the novel? Where’s the depth? It reads like interlocking short storieswhich is fine (and kind of trendy, I guess, recalling Olive Kitteridge, which also, now I think about it, won the Pulitzer, and which I also found fine but not great)but it also bespeaks a certain disengagement from the form of the novel as something distinct, doesn’t it? Is this a hopelessly old-fashioned idea, that novels are at their best when most themselves? (I know–that’s a question that can only get me into trouble, considering how amorphous the definition of “the novel” is, and how many dissimilar forms the category happily embraces.) But consider A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, for example. The heft of it! The fearless exposition! And the commitment to telling us what happens, what it means, how it feels, and to crafting all the profusion of details and characters into something artistically and intellectually solid. Novels don’t all have to be as heavy as The Children’s Book, but that feeling of repletion is something I appreciate in a novel. Leaving Brooklyn gave me that feeling too, in a completely different way, both aesthetically and formally. Goon Squad kept me interested moment to moment, but it felt more like the pleasures of a tapas bar than the satisfaction of a full meal. Its unities arise from the characters, whose stories persist and overlap, and from what I take to be the book’s central thematic interest in the relationship between our past and our present–and in the moments that crack them together, unsettling our sense of our own identities, releasing sparks of often poignant memory. (Yes, I saw the epigraphs from Proust.) That all works…and yet it didn’t really work for me at that visceral level where you say “this is a book for me, a book of my life.”

I’m open, as always, to the possibility that it’s my faultthat I’m not reading this particular book well, whether because it confounds or subverts my pre-existing expectations or preferences for fiction or for some other reason. I understand that Egan wasn’t trying to write like Byatt or Schwartz and failing at it, and indeed that kind of realism is probably something she avoided deliberately, though in many respects Goon Squad is a conventionally realist novel that just plays a little with chronology and point of view (first person! second person! third person!)and form or genre, what with the slides, and the magazine article (with footnotes!) and so on. One point of disconnection for me was certainly the general context of the stories: the punk music scene (and the musical allusions) are unfamiliar territory and hold little interest for me. Is it as simple as that? I couldn’t love the novel because I didn’t “relate” to it? I hope that’s not all that inhibited my appreciationI like to think I’m a better reader than that!

This post is very much a first response, too: I’ve only just put the book down, and though I’ve browsed back through it as I puttered away here to freshen and test my recollections of it, I know I haven’t given it the kind of attention I would give a book I were ‘officially’ reviewing. The bottom line, though, is that while I’m not sorry I read it, I have no urge to go back to it. There are books I’ve read once and become immediately, intimately bound up in them, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is just not one of them. Still, I’m curious enough about the mismatch between my experience and the buzz that I’ll probably go look up some reviews, and maybe the Tournament of Books posts about it: I feel the need for a little of what Wayne Booth calls “coduction.”

Have any of you read A Visit from the Goon Squad? What was your reaction? Are there any reviews or blog posts about it that you found particularly apt or provoking?