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Garth Risk Hallberg tackles the Life-and-Times novel

The great American novel is a long-dead cultural aspiration, snuffed out by a healthy realization that the country is too big and too diverse to form a single, definitive volume. American novelists in our time tend to achieve public recognition of greatness in a steady, gradual (one might say un-American) way: through the long-term production of many books that come with some regularity and are roughly on the same scale, one to the other. For writers as diverse as Alice McDermott, Colson Whitehead, and Richard Powers, size classifications are based on accrual rather than explosion.

Still, some younger novelists with exceptional gifts seem to have a romantically persistent notion of a one-book catapult. Garth Risk Hallberg, in his early forties but still boyishly photographed, continues to sway with promise and bewilderment. His novels, only three so far, sometimes fizz and sometimes roar, working appetites of inference or maximalist elaboration. He flirted with a kind of cosmic connectedness, or at least with a large sociopolitical canvas, before falling — as he did with his new book, «The Second Coming» (Knopf) — back into the super-restricted and familial. Looking at the three books together, the reader perceives not so much a multifaceted work as a series of shots that can be broken up.

Hallberg’s first novel, «A Field Guide to the North American Family» (2007), was a kind of multimedia art project that originated on a website and was first published in a small press. In the back pages, mini-stories from different points of view weaved into the shared story of two Long Island families, the Harrisons and the Hungates. Retto pages featured images, sometimes inscrutable (an X-ray of a hand, a hunting trophy wrapped in Saran), taken by countless photographers. Definitive captions, sometimes just clever but often downright funny, offered a taxonomy for each alien encountering the human species for the first time: “Rumour, resistant parasite, lives on Secret until its host is destroyed. In agricultural areasdiscretion is sometimes used as a control Reputation population.«

Hallberg was definitely a writer to watch, but when his second novel, «City on Fire,» came out eight years later, it bore only traces of resemblance to «Field Guide,» the occasional sports photo, and other collage elements, including small series of cursive writing, for which he has an unrelenting fondness. At nine hundred and eleven pages, «City on Fire» was an extended tour de force, a woven sheet designed to cover all of New York while maintaining an extremely high amount of detail. Its swinging-for-the-fences literary ambition excited and irritated readers in about equal measure—and some journalists inevitably hailed it with the terms Great American Novel. Set mostly in a run-down New York City in the mid-to-late 1970s, the book revolved around the tortured adult children of the wealthy Hamilton-Sweeney family. All of them, along with the vast array of characters in their orbit, were flashed by Hallberg’s exquisite attention to all that was corrupt and vital in the city at the time: impending budgetary ruin; central creativity; multiple murders, both singular and serial; countless group liberations and personal traumas—all phenomena that permanently subjugated that time and place to artistic wonder and, in less skilled hands, to sentimentality.

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Hallberg made it his fictional business to depict the city in punk bands, New Journalism, police rubber bands, xeroxed zines, spray-painted graffiti and municipal bonds. Much of the author’s subject matter was the sheer unity of things, whether man-made or simply fated, driven by a degree of chance 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 she begged for an adjustment. Hallberg could never just let the phone ring, not when its ringing «felt antique, somehow prematurely quaint, like the carillon of a village church destined for demolition.» Period references would be mined out (an excitable teenage boy «has to imagine the swaying of President Ford’s lobes to keep from cracking a full-sized bone»), and sentences would occasionally stray into some private realm of authorial meaning.

And yet neologisms and catalogs and touches of lyricism more often than not aroused the reader’s joy and the writer’s envy: the radio «played a big-band piece from before it was born, a slow, nostalgic, shimmering chandelier of a thing, around which the clarinet descended and sank as if into the room got a bird.» The book was so intricately constructed that it could be considered the antithesis of autofiction, though its aspiring novelist Mercer Goodman provided a self-consciously meta moment: his manuscript «just kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if he had taken on the burden of replacing the actual the same was true for Hallberg. The interconnectedness was so dense that the author’s stellar special effects threatened to collapse into a black hole, a world so over-contrived it could barely spin.

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Could there be such an exuberantly inventive sweet spot for writers between the slanted, inferential “Field Guide” and the gigantic particle accelerator that was “City on Fire”? Perhaps not, since the nature of this writer’s gifts seems incompatible with the very idea of ​​a middle path. But that seems to be what he’s looking for in «The Second Coming,» only to end up falling too far short of the scope of his previous novel.

The book chronicles Ethan Aspern’s attempts to reconnect with his barely-teenage daughter, Jolie. In 2011, while Ethan is trying to stay clean in California, Jolie, a gradually educated seventh grader in New York, has already started drinking vodka and spent time in a psychiatric ward. A near-disastrous descent onto some subway tracks, originally created to pick up a dropped smartphone, may also have involved a sudden suicide attempt. (The «Second Coming» of the novel’s title comes 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, she is fathered by a man-child who bears some resemblance to William Hamilton-Sweeney III from «City on Fire.» William struggled, but ultimately retained the reader’s patience, which may not stretch as far or as long with Ethan, whose mother died of cancer while he was still in high school. He not only stole her prescription painkillers, but also a piece of video art she had created and presented it as his own creation when he applied to the theater program at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. His eternal falling away is accompanied by a continuing and grandiose self-analysis throughout the novel.

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Ethan’s «reconciliation fantasies» with Jolie, the child of a teenage marriage, are fueled by a narcissistic belief that Jolie really needs him – regardless of the fact that when she was a child he saw her as a «passion project» rather than a means. to his own personal development rather than to her goal. Jolie, as usual, is also her own passion. She understands that she and her father are «still bound together on some deep level: an associative mind, a superficial softness of heart, an uncontrollable urge, and a secret self-loathing.» But once Ethan returns to New York, “a scant twenty-four hours in his presence… . . disabused her of the idea that his leaving her three years ago was nothing but a gift.’

Jolie may have an excuse from her youth for her wildly nervous behavior and statements, a constant sense of betrayal by others, but what her father’s former probation officer considers «Ethan’s special kind of insanity» seems decidedly off. At times, Hallberg encourages readers to let go of his clumsy protagonist, but one cannot escape the impression that the author himself is often deceived by his character.

Throughout, Hallberg shuffles the chronological deck in the manner of an episodic television drama, relegating the linear to the enemy of the artistic. What amounts to an epilogue begins on page sixty-five of the novel Five Hundred Eighty-Six, an Ozempian reduction from the «Cities on Fire» circuit. The climax of the book takes place over Thanksgiving weekend, when Ethan, still on the East Coast on his rescue mission, violates the custody arrangement by taking Jolie to a memorial service for her father in Ocean City, Maryland. Amber What follows is a quick accident – and a father-daughter trip with LSD. The novel delves briefly into «the difference between substance and essence, quite possibly semantic, or even imaginary,» and this disparity, once it emerges, inevitably applies to the book itself, with bravura attention to characters and complications that are less profound. and more famous than they should be.

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