City on Fire is clearly an unbelievably ambitious book that, in the end, falls rather flat. And after nine hundred pages, flat is not a position readers want to find themselves in.
City on Fire
Garth Risk Hallberg
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Happy New Year everyone! Due to travel and holiday activities, I haven’t been posting much over the past month, but now that I’m back, I’d thought I’d start 2016 off right with a real brick of a book: Garth Hallberg’s first novel, City on Fire.
City on Fire first caught my eye back in October, when I started hearing about it through the various book news sites I read and podcasts I listen to during my commute. The word about it was always overwhelmingly positive, in those often-meaningless blurbs of praise that book reviewers can’t seem to get away from: “breathtaking,” “phenomenal,” “a tour de force.” You know the drill. Anyway, the conceit of the book caught my eye, and I’ve been reading it ever since. However, before you criticize my supposedly slow progress through this tome, allow me to inform you that this novel is over 900 pages in length. That’s right. In case the numbers didn’t get to you, let me put it into words. Nine. Hundred. Pages. I could have read three other novels of more than average length in the same amount of time it took me to get though this mammoth of a book. And in some ways, I wish I had. More on that later though.
City on Fire is a massive chunk of a novel (you could substitute it for a brick in your house and never know the difference) that is set in New York City from 1959 to 1977, with the occasional jump to the present, just to see how things turned out. Each “book” or chapter shifts the time period to a different point in the past, and each jump provides Hallberg an opportunity to fill in the backstory of his characters and give more context for the events presented in the novel’s main story. Despite the experimental opportunities afforded by such a use of time in his narrative structure, Hallberg’s main focuses in this novel are the more mundane issues of family and trauma. In fact, one of the only ways time plays into City on Fire‘s plot is through the way Hallberg demonstrates that trauma, not matter how far into the past it may have initially occurred, stays with its victims on a daily basis, whether they wish it or not.
Again, though such structure and themes could produce a complex and engaging novel, City on Fire‘s plot is actually pretty thin, particularly for a book of such length. Most of the story revolves around two key events that occur in the first and last chapters respectively: the attempted murder of a young woman in Central Park on New Years Eve of 1976, and a New York city blackout in July of 1977. As mentioned above, while the intervening chapters move both forward and backward in time, the overall narrative moves across these six months of 1970s New York. And that’s the extent of the novel’s plotting. While there are other side-plots, particularly that involving the actions of the secretive Post-Humanist Phalanx, all roads lead back to these two narrative landmarks—a formulation that leaves the overall novel feeling rather hollow and does not provide nearly enough meat to keep readers moving from one lengthy chapter to the next.
It is also worth mentioning here that each chapter is followed by an interlude that Hallberg uses to insert different writing forms into the novel’s structure. He includes letters, journalism pieces, homemade “zines,” and other such styles of writing, and to his credit, Hallberg pulls almost all of them off with a seeming effortlessness that speaks to his refined technique and facility with language. While in some ways these interludes seem like homages to modernism, postmodernism, or even new journalist experiments of the past, the narrow plotting structure mentioned above often made me wonder why such attempts were included, other than to add simply MORE to the novel. And, unfortunately, MORE seems to be Hallberg’s main theme here. Again though, more on that later.
One of the few ways in which this novel excels, however, is in its characterization. Though I don’t have the highest opinion of this novel as a whole, I do recognize that what Hallberg does well, he does incredibly well. His characters are living, breathing entities who jump off of the page and into your mind in a way I have seldom experienced in all of my novel reading. Through their bad decisions, often based on underlying insecurities about their relationships, their jobs, and their own traumatic pasts, these characters become much more than simple narrative vehicles. Moreover, the different social strata Hallberg is able to dissect through these characters, while still maintaining their believability, is (dare I say it?) breathtaking. There are the brother and sister, William and Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, of the Hamilton-Sweeney financial empire, the former a troubled, artistic youth who turns to drugs as his father moves on to a new marriage and a newly dominated life, the latter a mother who must cope with staring a career as she discovers her husband Keith’s infidelity. There is Mercer Goodman, a gay, black man from Altana (yes, I spelled that right) Georgia who has dreams of writing the next great American novel, yet must struggle through his job at the Wenceslas-Mockingbird School for Girls and his always problematic relationship with William. There is Charlie Weisbarger, a troubled teen who also turns to drugs and punk culture to cope with his father’s death and his mother’s focus on two younger siblings. Then, there is Sam Cicciaro, high school student, daughter to a fireworks empire, publisher of her own punk “zine,” love of Charlie’s life, and the unwitting center of the web that eventually draws all of these characters together.
This small sampling doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the living, breathing, ’70s New York City that Hallberg has lovingly crafted. The characters go on and on in an endless stream, most more believable and sympathetic than those that came before. This is to say nothing of the biggest and most active character of them all: New York City itself. Part of the joy of the early, and best, parts of City on Fire is trying to discover how all of the different characters fit together. Hallberg drops hints here and there of how different people know one another, or how they have interacted in the past, but when the full reveals occur, these connections can often be both shocking and satisfying. More often than not, it was the strong characterization alone that pulled me through the novel, rather than the plot. It’s a somewhat backwards way to construct a novel, but, as I said above, it makes the beginning of the book strong and cleanly hooks the reader at the book’s outset. In constructing complex, multifaceted characters, I do not exaggerate when I put Hallberg up there with some of the best in such craftsmanship.
However, this is unfortunately where my praise for the novel must end.
Without being too critical, I often wondered while reading this book what particular flavor of Jello Hallberg’s editor was made of. Grape? Strawberry? Whatever the taste, there certainly was no firmness to it whatsoever.
All joking aside, this novel would be greatly improved if it lost around 300 to 400 pages, and a stronger dose of painful, editorial truth would have undoubtedly helped it get there. In fact, when Henry James complained of nineteenth century novels as “large, loose, baggy monsters,” he could have easily been referring to City on Fire. In the first two hundred pages or so, Hallberg doesn’t sound like a first time novelist. He has a tight control of his material. All of the characterization, the backstory, the plot development, is all relevant to the novel’s overall themes and purposes. Plot points connect to one another like so many axons and dendrites, making up a central nervous system that keeps the writing alive, keeps it thinking, keeps it feeling in a way that only the best novels can. But about halfway through is when Hallberg begins to lose control of his material. In some ways, City on Fire becomes a case of ‘the man who couldn’t stop writing’ (a ’50s B-grade sci-fi movie title if I’ve ever heard one). New characters are introduced who don’t seem to have any purpose, characters whom you’ve been with for hundreds of pages suddenly die off, other characters who have been struggling with seemingly monumental trauma become instead, whiny, exasperating versions of tragic heroes. And if that is Hallberg’s goal, more power to him; however, City on Fire‘s ending doesn’t indicate such mastery. By the close of this never-ending story, it seems that we are still supposed to sympathize with characters who had at least several hundred pages before devolved into uninteresting, unrelatable messes of their once great selves.
In some ways, reading City on Fire was like watching a competent juggler throw an astounding number of balls into perfect motion, then slowly but surely lose control, until all the moving parts came crashing uncontrollably to the floor.
There are other qualities of City on Fire that, had they been measured a bit more judiciously, would not have worn so thin by the novel’s end. The first is how Hallberg places himself in line with an ongoing fetishizing of New York before it was “cleaned up.” The novel praises the dirt and grime of ’70s New York City, when Times Square was still full of sex shops, mugging was a daily reality rather than a shocking event, and hollowed out slums stretched for miles within and around the city itself. While Hallberg’s almost wistful reveries for this forgotten New York come across as romantic in the beginning, after a while they grow stale and seem almost immature. This is in spite of the fact that, at its core, City on Fire is inherently a book about the city more than anything else. The long tangents, the piling of story on top of story to the nth degree is all crafted as a means of constructing a city in text, rather than brick and mortar. The problem is, however, that when you give up plot to expand on your singular vision of a city, and your vision of that city is not one that remains convincing and moving in the long term, your novel will wear thin long before you intended. Such is the case here.
Another such focus for the novel is its praise of punk culture, of sticking it to the man, and not caring what anyone thinks about you. Take that, Mom! This one, I think, is meant to wear thin as the characters who proselytize for such a lifestyle are shown to be empty, delusional, and overtly manipulative by the novel’s conclusion. Still, I think the writing loses momentum in this arena long before Hallberg intended, and as such, by the final pages I was simply ready to be done with it all.
I don’t want to sound like I’m pulling a hack job here. As a writer, I don’t believe in hack jobs, and I don’t think they are helpful as reviews. Hack jobs are often more about the insecurities of reviewers, rather than the actual quality of the writing they need to discuss. That being said, I don’t think it is helpful to pull punches when a novel has serious problems, and this one most certainly does.
Part of my overt frustration with this text has to do with its length, compared to what it eventually delivers. When a short novel doesn’t deliver on the promises it makes to readers, I don’t feel as though I have wasted a great deal of my time. I don’t feel like I’ve lost something. To pour months into a book of this length, only to be thwarted in such obvious and avoidable ways, however, seems like so much a betrayal of a reader’s trust, of a reader’s time, that I find myself more put out with Hallberg than I would be if the novel were of a decent length. On the whole, however, I feel that the betrayal of this book goes even deeper than a simple waste of my evenings. It took that feeling of completion away from me, that mixture of nostalgia, accomplishment, and the satisfaction of having come to a journey’s end that only novels, even longer novels, can provide.
Overall, I wouldn’t say this is a bad book at all—rather, it’s a disappointing one. If City on Fire hadn’t begun with such verve, and such promise, it’s final inability to deliver upon the complex, drawn out themes it engages would not be so frustrating. Hallberg clearly has a masterpiece in him, of that much I am certain. City on Fire, however, is not it, and it requires a massive time and energy investment to learn that heartrending truth.
Unfortunately, this a novel you will enjoy less the more you read of it. It starts very strong, loses momentum and direction in the middle, and by the end Hallberg is clearly holding so many loose strands, he can’t find a way to tie them all together in a satisfying manner. City on Fire is clearly an unbelievably ambitious book that, in the end, falls rather flat. And after nine hundred pages, flat is not a position readers want to find themselves in.