Garth Risk Hallberg Takes On the Life-and-Times Novel

The Great American Novel is a long-dead cultural aspiration, extinguished by a healthy realization that the country is too big and too varied to generate any singular, definitive volume. American novelists tend, in our time, to earn public recognition of greatness in a steady, incremental (one is almost tempted to say un-American) way: through the long-term production of many books that arrive with a certain regularity and are roughly on the same scale, one to the next. For writers as different as Alice McDermott, Colson Whitehead, and Richard Powers, the greatness classification comes more from accrual than from explosion.

Even so, some younger novelists with exceptional gifts seem to have a romantically persistent notion of the single-book catapult. Now in his mid-forties, but still boyishly author-photo’d, Garth Risk Hallberg continues to wobble with promise and perplexity. His novels, so far only three in number, sometimes murmur and sometimes roar, operating by wisps of inference or by maximalist elaboration. He has flirted with a kind of cosmic connectedness, or at least a large sociopolitical canvas, before subsiding—as he has done with his new book, “The Second Coming” (Knopf)—back into the super-circumscribed and familial. Looking at the three books together, a reader perceives not so much a multifarious œuvre as a series of make-or-break shots.

Hallberg’s first novel, “A Field Guide to the North American Family” (2007), was a sort of multimedia art project that originated on a Web site and got published first by a small press. On the verso pages, mini-narratives from various points of view melded into the shared story of two Long Island families, the Harrisons and the Hungates. The recto pages contained pictures, sometimes inscrutable (an X-ray of hands, a Saran-wrapped hunting trophy), taken by myriad photographers. Definitional captions, occasionally just clever, but often truly witty, offered a taxonomy for any extraterrestrial having a first encounter with the human species: “Rumor, a resilient parasite, feeds on the Secret until its host is destroyed. In agricultural areas, Discretion is sometimes employed as a check on the Rumor population.

Hallberg was definitely a writer to watch, but when his second novel, “City on Fire,” arrived, eight years later, it bore only traces of resemblance to “Field Guide,” sporting occasional photos and other collage elements, including small bursts of cursive writing, for which he has a continuing fondness. At nine hundred and eleven pages, “City on Fire” was a prolonged tour de force, a woven sheet determined to cover all of New York City while maintaining an extremely high thread count of detail. Its swing-for-the-fences literary ambition exhilarated and exasperated a reader in about equal measure—and it was inevitably appraised by some journalists in Great American Novel terms. Set mostly in the crumbled-norms New York of the mid- to late seventies, the book revolved around the tormented adult children of the rich Hamilton-Sweeney family. All of them, along with a vast array of characters in their orbit, were strobe-lit by Hallberg’s excellent attention to everything depraved and vital in the city of that era: impending budgetary doom; downtown’s skanky creativity; copious murders, both singular and serial; innumerable group liberations and personal traumas—all the phenomena that have left that time and place permanently subject to artistic awe and, in less dexterous hands, sentimentality.

Hallberg made it his fictional business to render the city in punk bands, New Journalism, police gumshoeing, xeroxed zines, spray-painted graffiti, and municipal bonds. A large part of the author’s subject amounted to the sheer unity of things, whether it was human-engineered or simply fateful, propelled by a degree of coincidence that would make Dickens blush.

The book deserved most of the hype and some of the scorn it received; no one could deny its virtuosity, no matter how much it begged to be trimmed. Hallberg could never just let a phone ring, not when its ringing “seemed antique, somehow prematurely quaint, like the carillon of a village church slated for demolition.” Period references would be shoehorned in (an excitable teen-age boy has “to picture the wobble of President Ford’s jowls in order not to pop a full-blown bone”), and sentences occasionally wandered off into some private authorial sphere of meaning.

And yet the neologisms and catalogues and touches of lyricism more often than not excited readerly joy and writerly envy: a radio “played a big band song from before he was born, a slow, nostalgic, glimmering chandelier of a thing, around which a clarinet swooped and dove like a bird had got into the room.” The book was so complicatedly constructed that it could be regarded as the opposite of autofiction, though its aspiring-novelist character, Mercer Goodman, provided a self-conscious meta moment: his manuscript “kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it.” The same was true for Hallberg. The connectedness became so dense that the author’s starry special effects threatened to collapse into a black hole, a world so excessively imagined that it could barely keep spinning.

Can there be, for a novelist this exuberantly inventive, a sweet spot between the oblique, inferential “Field Guide” and the gigantic particle accelerator that was “City on Fire”? Maybe not, since the nature of this writer’s gifts seems irreconcilable with the very idea of middle ground. But that’s what he appears to be seeking in “The Second Coming,” only to wind up running too far away from the scope of his previous novel.

The book chronicles the attempts of Ethan Aspern—a onetime actor and twice-arrested drug addict—to reconnect with his barely teen-age daughter, Jolie. In 2011, while Ethan is trying to stay clean in California, Jolie, a progressively schooled New York City seventh grader, has already begun drinking vodka and has spent some time in a psych ward. A near-disastrous descent onto some subway tracks, initially made to retrieve a fallen smartphone, may also have included a sudden pursuit of suicidal opportunity. (The “second coming” of the novel’s title derives not from the Nicene Creed or Yeats but from an unlicensed Prince song that Jolie was about to select on her phone.)

At thirty-three, her father is a man-child who bears some resemblance to “City on Fire” ’s William Hamilton-Sweeney III. William tried but ultimately kept a reader’s patience, which may not extend quite so far or so long with Ethan, whose mother died from cancer while he was still in high school. He stole not only her prescription painkillers but also a piece of video art that she’d made, submitting it as his own creation when he applied to a theatre program at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. His perpetual backsliding is soundtracked throughout the novel by an ongoing and grandiose self-analysis.

Ethan’s “fantasies of reconciliation” with Jolie, the child of a youthful marriage, are fuelled by the narcissistic belief that Jolie truly needs him—no matter that when she was a baby he thought of her as a “passion project,” more a means to his own personal development than an end in herself. Jolie, as it happens, is also her own passion project. She understands that she and her father are “still bound together on some deep level: associative mind, surface soft-heartedness, uncontrollable urges, and secret self-loathing.” But, once Ethan returns to New York, “a scant twenty-four hours in his presence . . . disabused her of the notion that his walking out on her three years ago had been anything but a gift.”

Jolie may have the excuse of youth for her gratingly angsty behavior and pronouncements, her constant sense of others’ betrayal, but what her father’s former probation officer thinks of as “Ethan’s special brand of madness” seems decidedly off the shelf. At times, Hallberg invites readers to give up on his feckless protagonist, but one can’t escape a sense that the author himself is often hoodwinked by his character.

Throughout, Hallberg shuffles the chronological pack in the manner of episodic television drama, demoting the linear to enemy of the artistic. What amounts to an epilogue begins on the sixty-fifth page of the novel’s five hundred and eighty-six, an Ozempic reduction from the girth of “City on Fire.” The book’s climactic action takes place over Thanksgiving weekend, when Ethan, still on the East Coast on his rescue mission, violates custody arrangements by taking Jolie to a memorial service for his father in Ocean City, Maryland. Amber Alert-able calamity—and a father-daughter LSD trip—ensues. The novel briefly ponders “the distinction between substance and essence, quite possibly semantic, or even imaginary,” and that disparity, once it’s raised, inevitably starts to apply to the book itself, with its bravura attention to characters and complications that are less deep and more familiar than they ought to be.

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