(Book Review) Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

city on fireI have a mixed track record with really long books. While I have repeatedly tried to read War and Peace and never made it past the first few chapters, I have read (and, frankly, hated) Anna Karenina. I tried to read Middlemarch the other day and was rendered incapable due to a debilitating cold; a few years ago, however, I read Les Miserables in two days, rendering me incapable due to debilitating sobbing and humming of Do You Hear the People Sing? Hefty tomes do not scare me. They do, on the other hand, take ages to read, and so I am wary of picking up anything that exceeds 600 pages these days, when I annoyingly have things to do which aren’t reading.

And so I came to City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf, October 2015). City on Fire is 911 pages long. Only two of these pages could technically be called a picture. It is a lot of reading. It is a big commitment. It is sweeping and sprawling and elusive.  The book sat in my house for some days before I was brave enough to even try to pick it up, such is its physical presence.

You may be wondering what City on Fire is actually about; while reading it, I occasionally wondered the same thing. The opening chapters build up to a shooting in New York as 1976 becomes 1977. The story then moves back into the past, offering context and background, flits between past and present, and finally returns to the 1970s for some frenetic and comparatively action-packed 200 pages, bringing the story back to the initial crime. In reading City on Fire, you’ll meet a plethora of characters, from teen punks to aging detectives, with the occasional wannabe artist or anarchist thrown in. While reading, I mentally compared Hallberg’s accumulation of disparate but connected people to the style of Dickens; I was then deeply disappointed to find that, actually, a large number of other readers and reviewers had made this connection and apparently I am not a genius. Even as I write, in this oddly stream-of-consciousness style which will, surely, one day gain me a $2 million advance for my own debut novel, I have realized the book is 911 pages long–i.e. 9/11–and is set in New York. Did Hallberg actually plan to write exactly 911 pages so that incredibly insightful people like me could feel really smart for noticing this?

So, why should you take on this gargantuan reading challenge? For one thing, City on Fire is destined to become one of those books which ‘serious’ readers use as a benchmark for judging who is worthy of sharing their oxygen: “Oh, you’ve read City on Fire? Please come and share this cake with me while we partake in lively literary debate.” I read a lot of YA fiction, which, while not always easygoing and lighthearted, at least tends to be reasonably short; for this reason, I like my adult fiction literary and meaty, and City on Fire certainly meets these requirements. The book shifts between different narrators and narrative strands, preventing the reader from tiring of any one character, but also requiring serious focus and attention.

“…-but when are you going to get over yourself, New York? How can I make you see? I know I shouldn’t be yelling in a crowded theater, but really, where’s the fire? The hour’s late the odds are long, the patient’s on life support…and if anyone’s going to pull us through, it’s going to have to be you.” – page 705

I have always wished I was a New Yorker;  I think this is quite the cliche for Brits my age who grew up listening to the Strokes, watching Friends and reading The Bell Jar (not, perhaps the most aspirational example, admittedly). The specific time period Hallberg chooses, representing the epoch of punk, is a particular fascination for me, calling to mind the Ramones, the New York Dolls and Richard Hell (someone who I think must have inspired much of the nihilistic attitudes expounded here). The city is almost personified in the book, a character to be both idolized and mistrusted, yearned for and wary of. Every one of Hallberg’s characters seeks ownership of New York in their own way, identifying themselves according to their physical and emotional proximity to the city.

“New York now belonged to the future. And it was going to protect him this time, he was sure of it. Never again would they let each other down.” – page 487

I think it was the parallel and linking stories of Sam and Charlie, the punk teenagers from Long Island, with whom I most closely sympathized. Their urgent struggle for an identity, as well as their perceived isolation from the city and scene they are so desperate to join, provided a simple and palpable emotional core to the lengthy expanses of exposition. The fanzine Sam writes, featured as one of the novel’s ‘Interludes,’ provides a vibrant and witty break from the more conventional narrative; I’ve read at least one review criticizing the lack of historical accuracy on this point, but, for me, this is unnecessarily picky when referring to a part of City on Fire which feels truly alive. The zine is described thus: “reading it was like subletting a small apartment in someone’s head” (page 348). Reading City on Fire is like staying in an enormous, sprawling mansion in someone’s head; one where the corridors seem unnavigable and the doorways always seem to lead somewhere other than expected.

Other narrative strands also pack an emotional punch, with the wealthy and influential Hamilton-Sweeney family sitting astride the action of the novel; linked, but separate, is Mercer, a young, black, gay, aspiring writer, often a lone face of colour amidst a sea of whiteness, sometimes forced to hide his sexuality. His attempts to gain an emotional foothold in the city are always compelling and, at times, heartrending. On arriving at Port Authority, Mercer imagines “one part of him swanning with Jay Gatsby around an imaginary Gotham; the other part stolid and earthbound, nose to the deep fat fryer, in the stifling, sizzling South” (page 206); the vitality of New York and its immense draw, juxtaposed with the seemingly inferior life left behind, underpins many of the narrative strands of the novel.

Ultimately, the sheer size of City on Fire is likely to be a barrier to some potential readers; to these skeptics, I would point out that the structure of the novel does allow you to read in manageable chunks. To those for whom 911 pages sounds like a challenge worth pursuing, I offer my good wishes and utmost respect.

City on Fire is available now at GPL.


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