Lyrically told and lavishly designed, Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide To The North American Family follows the story of two suburban families through a series of 63 illustrated chapters. This evocative novella presents its brief vignettes as a series of non-linear “field guide entries,” each complete with an abstract photo of whatever small-town indiscretion, teenage experimentation, patriarchal death, etc. is described on the opposite page. Through playful scenes of fumbled intimacy and gallows-humor descriptions of the human response to universal concepts like guilt, tenderness, youth, and others, a post-modern story of suburban ennui emerges. It’s an innovative web of images and isolated moments that practically begs to be reread upon completion.
Subtitled An Illustrated Fiction, Hallberg’s first book is chiefly concerned with the Hungates and the Harrisons, a pair of neighboring families of similar backgrounds living in Long Island, New York. When one of the fathers dies, it sets off a chain of responses leaving each family member adrift. It is a very short work that relies heavily on presentation and discovery, so substantive discussion of the characters and their arcs would be missing the point.
The “entries” tend to jump around in point-of-view and tone; the author, a reviewer and editor for online lit mag The Millions, has no trouble switching from deadpanning tongue-in-cheek nature observations of the North American Family in their native habitat (“Due to a growth curve similar to that of depression, a robust divorce population has become common wherever love dwells in large numbers.”) to heartbreaking descriptions of a fractured family in mourning.
The 63 selections are not sequenced beyond alphabetization of each chapter’s title (Adolescence, Adulthood, Angst, Boredom, etc.). This is important, as each section — only a few are over a page long — is supplemented with multiple sets of cross-references to lead you to other chapters. The order in which you read is your own. I’ve read the book through three times now: front-to-back, back-to-front, and through the clever cross-references provided. Though this system of linked keywords seems to be the way the author and publisher would like the book to be read, I found it to be more creative than helpful. It means the book can function as a choose-your-own-adventure, but only if you wish to lose yourself in the journey. In short, you’ll have to keep track of which chapters you’ve read so you don’t retrace your steps too many times.
As innovative and bruising as it was, it does not seem far off the mark to wish there had been more. Alas, anyone who enjoyed Hallberg’s voice and wants to see what the author is capable of over, say, 900 pages should be on the lookout for his next release. In November of last year, Hallberg signed a major deal (just south of $2 million) with Knopf for City On Fire, his doorstop of a debut set in New York City during the 1970’s. We will let you know when it is slated for release.
By Andrew Wetzel