By: Maria Popova
A poetic reflection on the human condition, or what fiscal responsibility has to do with freedom.
It doesn’t take long to realize fiction isn’t exactly a fixture on Brain Pickings. But A Field Guide to the North American Family, the literary debut of Garth Risk Hallberg, is a genre-bender that makes it delightfully uncomfortable to classify it as strict fiction. Through 63 interlinked fictional vignettes, each accompanied by a visual interpretation by a different artist, Hallberg tells the story of two struggling suburban Long Island neighbor families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, who are forced to adapt to a new reality when the patriarch of one family dies unexpectedly — but he uses the allegory of their specific circumstances to explore general, universally human concepts like love, happiness, belonging, freedom, and a wealth more, with equal parts poetic contemplation and ironic humor. Part photoessay, part Choose Your Own Adventure novel, part meditation on human nature, it’s a fine piece of literary innovation rare to come by and bound to stick around, the kind of book you keep returning to over and over again until it begins to feel like an intimate part of your own family.
Each double-page spread covers a specific facet of the human condition — from mortgage to mythology to midlife crisis — and features a short, poignant textual vignette on the left, with a cleverly captioned image on the right, treating each phenomenon as the subject of a National Geographic nature documentary for an effect that’s both humorous and deeply human.
'Optimism lives so long as to seem, to the human observer, practically immortal -- but unlike that of other creatures, the development of Optimism proceeds in reverse. That is, Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its microscopic adult size.'
'Adulthood can be distinguished from Maturity by its tendency to cling to the chrysalis. On occasion, Adulthood has even been known to disappear back into Adolescence following an unsettling foray out into the world.'
'An erratic Maturity pattern characterizes the Midlife Crisis: it may remain a manageable size for years, only to reach its full stature in a few turbulent days.'
'Holiday may be observed as many as eight times a year. A peaceable creature, it abhors confrontation; all conflicts within the pack are settled via high-frequency communications inaudible to the human ear.'
'Having evolved from a ruminant species known as Melancholia, Depression now dominates the animal kingdom. Its explosive growth curve remains unaccounted for, but some Family-watchers have pointed to a concurrent surge in Search for Meaning.'
'Due to a growth curve similar to that of Depression, a robust Divorce population has become common wherever Love dwells in large numbers.'
'Once thought to be nonexistent where Entertainment was present, this harmless parasite is now known to be present, to some degree, in every ecosystem.'
'Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as alarmists would have us believe. Without it, new research confirms, the entire Family would cease to function.'
'The Sibling Rivalry hunts in groups of two or more. With its tremendous longevity, it may hibernate for years between periods of activity. This Rivalry, like species on other continents, tends to lose some of its vitality with age.'
'Slow to adapt to the ecological upheavals of the American century, Grief now thrives only in isolation. The study of Grief is further complicated by its nocturnal Habits, and by the fact that no Grief is like any other.'
Almost as interesting and thought-provoking as the book itself is Hallberg’s discussion of the economics of Amazon reviews over on Slate, triggered by his discovery of a strange subculture of power-reviewers through the Amazon page of his own book, namely one Grady Harp.
A Field Guide to the North American Family comes from Mark Batty Publisher, the latest chapter of our love affair with the indie powerhouse.
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