I have to admit rather cynical motives for reading this book. I did so purely so I could write a review of a more popular book than I would generally read, so that review would be widely read and drive people towards my own website.
It won’t be easy because there are already more than 2,000 reviews of it on Goodreads, and most seem to agree with me — Manhattan Beach is well written, well researched, blah blah blah, but it’s still not great.
It’s is a calculated but inevitable cash-in on Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize fame and very much a product of the modern publishing industry. After all, she had to do something next. The film deal cannot be far away. Oh, there we go, I’ve just checked, and the rights have already been sold, indeed shortly after it was published.
Somehow, it has garnered rave reviews from what you might laughingly refer to as the ‘professionals’. The New York Times said it ‘deserved to join the canon of New York stories’. But is that praise? If you write any story about New York, do you not automatically gain entry to whatever a canon is, no matter how bad the story? I suppose we are fooled by use of the word ‘canon’. I’ll look it up in my book reviewers’ dictionary one day.
The Sunday Times, while not being overly impressed, does hail Egan’s descriptive writing. They call it superlative. Another one those words from the book reviewers’ dictionary.
The sea is ‘a hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, or wax; hammered silver; wrinkled flesh.’
Is that great writing? Not in my book. (I mean that bit literally. You won’t find that sort of overwritten garbage in my book. I have my very own sort of overwritten garbage.)
Egan speaks much of the research she did for the book. That’s a problem, not just with Manhattan Beach but many modern novels set in the past. The issue is whether it is convincing – does the author live and breathe in this world, or has she simply regurgitated the research? Is it from the inside out or the outside in?
The answer is here both. By far the most powerful part of the book is that where Egan writes about a severely disabled girl, and especially her tragic femininity. If Egan found out about that merely from research, she’s better at it than I think.
The least convincing are the sections on a merchant navy boat during World War Two. We find, for example, a merchant seaman who becomes an officer is known as a ‘hawsepiper’.
I don’t want to be entirely cynical about this (for once), as the sections on military divers in Brooklyn Shipyard came across well, but ‘hawsepiper’ does have its own page on Wikipedia.
I doubt very much that Marcel Proust, whom Egan admires very much, visited the madeleine factory when he wrote In Search of Lost Time. Did William Burroughs write Junkie and Queer after trips to the public library?
All said, Manhattan Beach is a reasonable read, and certainly not rubbish, but it’s not a book that stays in the memory long. Most of characterisation is shallow, and while the story itself bumps along merrily, it’s not gripping.
To be cynical, it’s all about what a writer who has had some success does next. It’s not as good or original as A Visit From the Goon Squad, which itself isn’t the greatest book ever written. Manhattan Beach ticks boxes: mystery, historical feminism, and an unusual setting. But it feels as if those have been picked from the shelf, rather than Egan having a burning desire to write about them.
In other words, the product of the modern publishing industry. Which is why I don’t feel too bad about writing a cynical review.
Am I right, or am I talking rubbish?