Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family is a novella about two neighboring Long Island families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, and the ways their paths intersect and diverge. But it’s also a study in the juxtaposition of photographs and words, a riff on nature guides and cultural anthropology, and, fundamentally, a book that brings the reader’s imagination to the front. We are charged with the responsibility of creating meaning from this work. How we do that is up to us.
The result is a book that is intellectually stimulating, but only intermittently effective as narrative. Field Guide is formatted like a nature guide: each page focuses on a specific subject, featuring text, a picture, and cross-references to other subjects of possible interest. The subjects tend to be broad: “Chemistry,” “Gravity,” “Adolescence,” “Maternal Instinct,” “Meaning, Search For.” A page at the beginning of the book instructs readers on the many paths through the text, and a defining feature of this work is its non-linearity: it has been designed to be read in almost any order. Readers can proceed from beginning to end, they can hop through the entries by following the cross-references, or they can follow a logic of their own devising.
The entries tell the Hungates’ and the Harrisons’ stories from a variety of perspectives and in numerous different voices. The two families are not particularly close, though they interact frequently, and come together for neighborly activities like barbecuing. Jack and Elizabeth Hungate have a son, Gabe, a rebellious teenager, and a much younger daughter, Jackie, who is often lost in her own world. Frank and Marne Harrison have a daughter, Lacey, who is around Gabe’s age, and a son, Thomas, who is a few years younger and is prone to exaggerating the truth, so much so that he is nicknamed “Lying Thomas.” Gabe’s rebelliousness develops into experiments with the expressive powers of graffiti, but he’s reckless, and his actions have consequences that draw in the rest of the characters, especially Lacey, who becomes infatuated with him. The elliptical structure of the writing makes the story difficult to summarize beyond this sketchy layout, and anyway it feels beside the point: each vignette stands on its own, linked to the others through oblique references. Some dive into specific moments of the characters’ lives, describing their internal states in scintillating detail. Others pull back, take a sociological perspective. Some are in first person, some in second, some in third. Under one entry, there is a list of questions; under another, a fairytale in a child’s handwriting. In one memorable instance, under the heading “Habits, Good,” the first paragraph of text has been blotted out with a heavy black pen, leaving only the line “There is no such thing as a good habit.”
Loneliness and sadness make frequent appearances, and though the writing can also be funny and hopeful, the dominant mode is existential malaise. “Chemistry” is a list of various substances, licit and illicit, that might be consumed by members of a family; underneath the litany of chemicals lies a narrative of pain and the ways people cope with it. “Sacrifice,” one of the most moving moments in the book, describes Jack discovering a lizard as long as an arm living in his garden. He believes it’s an escaped pet and lets it be. But as winter approaches, he calls animal control, thinking the lizard won’t survive the cold. A woman comes to take the lizard away, and when she departs, he breaks down into tears without quite knowing why. “Adolescence,” the first entry, describes Gabe breaking into a train yard, his backpack full of spray paint, mischief in his heart. Though not all readers will start there, it’s a clever entry point to the novella, its imagery and emotions a rubric for the rest of the story.
In aggregate, the vignettes form a cubistic portrait of the two families: multiple angles, splashes of color, empty spaces. There’s no single protagonist, which is both a strength and a weakness. Characters come to brilliant life in a few words, but there’s not enough narrative momentum to sweep the reader up in the story. The book compels the reader to fit the pieces together, not unlike doing a jigsaw puzzle. You get the delight of finding the right piece, and the frustration of missing it.
Though Field Guide can be maddeningly elliptical, the language is often beautiful. One of Hallberg’s strengths is the way he layers intricate imagery into his sentences, giving them a texture that is a joy to read. Consider the final sentence of “Adolescence”: “It’s the sky over the city sprayed violet, like the inside of one’s heart—cloudy, brooding, still aglow after distant explosions.” Through the spray paint cans Gabe is carrying in his backpack, the exterior world is mapped onto his interior adolescence, its joys and pains.
The photographs vary in how directly they relate to the text. Many of them feel haunted by absence, sorrowful, alienated, and their juxtaposition with the text creates spaces for the reader to wander around. The photo under “Chemistry” is more texture than anything else; in its fuzziness, its uncertainty, it suggests the blurring of the senses that substances often cause. The photo accompanying “Adolescence” is of a teenage boy in a black sleeveless shirt, his head titled back, his eyes to the sky, his hands holding taut wires that go up and out of the frame. It plays off the text perfectly, capturing a feeling of tension and possibility. Underneath the pictures, humorous lines continue the field guide conceit by invoking the language of nature documentaries: “Though often identified with Freedom, the wild Adolescence more closely resembles a Search for Meaning.”
Originally published in 2007, Field Guide is being republished after the success of Hallberg’s 900-page novel City on Fire. The two works share many similarities: non-linear storytelling, multiple perspectives and modes of writing, the integration of graphical and pictorial elements, the mimetic representation of text as it would appear in the world (especially in handwriting). In City on Fire, the disparate elements, united under a grand narrative, become coherent. They all feed into, and help to create, the novel’s vast scope, its desire to represent the many forms the world can take. The compression of Field Guide means the pieces stay jagged and scattered—they tell a story, but their coherence can seem forced. The implication of the format is that the specific characters and stories are representatives of species, and their needs and wants, their habits and nesting places, their success and failures are therefore universally relatable. But isn’t that already the hidden hope of all fiction?
No writer truly controls how a reader reads their work. Hallberg’s novella explicitly endorses wayward reading in its structure, in its non-linearity, in its use of photos in juxtaposition with the text. The reader makes an essential contribution. A Field Guide to the North American Family is a refreshing take on narrative, and if the book sacrifices momentum, what it gains is just as important: an explicit endorsement of the freedom to create meaning.
John Flynn-York is an MFA candidate in the UC Riverside–Palm Desert low residency creative writing program. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays.