Book Review: “City on Fire”—Epic Literary Kindling

For a long novel, City on Fire is generously accessible, and one of its strengths is in its absorbing, immersive momentum.


City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. Knopf, 944 pages, $30.

By Matt Hanson

Pretty much everything about City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, is big. It’s been called the literary event of the fall, receiving an eye-catching 2 million-dollar advance after a long bidding war between 10 different publishing houses. Producer Scott Rudin purchased the film rights even before the manuscript had sold. The massive promotional campaign includes a multi-city book tour, a book trailer, and a nationwide advertising campaign.

More importantly, the buzz also concerns the exciting literary ambition at work: City on Fire weighs in at 944 pages divided into seven chapters telling the stories of over a dozen interconnected characters living at loose ends within the mansions and the mean streets of ’70s era New York City, whose lives coalesce amid the chaotic 1977 blackout.

Hallberg’s narrative weaves the connective threads of its characters over time and space, binding them in ways both simple and complex. We first meet an interracial gay couple, one of which is William Hamilton-Sweeney III, a freewheeling artist manqué who is the rebellious scion of the enormously wealthy and deeply corrupt old New York family. Their doddering patriarch is soon to be indicted, opening the way for the sleekly ruthless uncle Amory’s apocalyptic approach to urban renewal. William’s anxious sister Regan tries to keep her dignity and her crumbling marriage intact, while fighting off her private demons in a world where gender and privilege are sinisterly intertwined.

William’s ambivalent boyfriend is Mercer Goodman, a young black man from the South who came to the big city to escape his provincial upbringing and dreams of writing the Great American Novel. Mercer has the misfortune of being the first person to come across the body of a teenage punk rocker from Long Island named Samantha Cicciaro in a park on New Year’s Eve.

Samantha’s allure and fierce will becomes a connection point for her helplessly adoring, asthmatic best friend Charlie Weisbarger and a makeshift cell of would-be terrorists who call themselves the Post-Humanist Phalanx led by the nihilistic pseudo-intellectual Nicky Chaos, a former associate of William’s via a punk band avidly followed by Samantha and Charlie. As one character remarks, “who didn’t exist at the convergence of a thousand thousand stories?”

The intricate plotting isn’t as confusing as it might have been in less capable hands. Hallberg’s narrator keeps the gears of the plot moving forward without losing coherence. For a long novel, City on Fire is generously accessible, and one of its strengths is in its absorbing, immersive momentum. Scott Rudin may have been on to something; the novel’s soundtrack is expertly chosen and vividly cinematic. City on Fire gets much more right about punk rock than the vastly overrated A Visit from the Goon Squad ever did.

City on Fire also proffers a heady mix of discourses. Each chapter bears at least one different epigraph, taken from sources ranging from poetry and fiction to journalism and song lyrics. Each chapter is juxtaposed with a fictitious found text that enriches the texture of the narrative. At different points, we read a handwritten letter from a father to a son, sift through a journalist’s booze-stained notebook, peruse a psychological profile report, and scan through a detailed edition of Samantha’s self-published punk fanzine “Land of 1,000 Dances,” which unintentionally contains clues about who killed Samantha. These are decoded by various parties both sympathetic and not.

In today’s media environment, where language is so easily disposable, mass-produced, and used as a form of instant gratification, it’s refreshing to read something that clearly took real labor to construct. Linguistically, the craftsmanship is solid; many of City on Fire’s innumerable sentences are quite beautifully constructed. But in fiction as in life, quantity affects quality. Bigger doesn’t always necessarily mean better.

Hallberg’s storytelling gifts are evident in many places, but there are a few hundred pages more than necessary. Some of the characters veer dangerously into cliché, such as the boozy reporter who’s overly obsessed with cracking the big story that might save his floundering career and the emotionally stunted cop who needs crutches to get around (metaphor alert!) and should really just retire already but can’t let himself give up the case. Other characters are given detailed backstories that aren’t really essential or add much drama to the already loaded cast list.

There is a hokey metaphor for survival and transcendence that gets awkwardly repeated within a few pages toward the end of the book, when some of the plot strands are knit together a little too easily. No spoilers, but there is a rather implausible plot twist that I’d suspected a few hundred pages before it happened, which is a red flag since I am (partially by nature, partly by intention) never very good at figuring out plot arcs. At times, it feels like City on Fire is so caught up in the many stories it wants to tell that it’s bigger, more philosophical themes are buried under the sweep of the narrative rather than illuminated by it.

Rewarding as it can be, City on Fire isn’t the unforgettable masterpiece all the hoopla around it might suggest. Where the the story comes up short is in how, for all its ambition and gusto, it unexpectedly plays it safe. Hallberg is clearly aiming for the dynamic, encyclopedic heights of (post)modern mega-novels like Infinite Jest and 2666, which is all to the good. Those books found a mysterious formula, rich and strange, that kept their readability consistently equal to their profundity. Once you finish them, you don’t see the world in quite the same way. A tall order, certainly, but not one Hallberg’s realism ever really attempts. City on Fire is an interesting, worthwhile novel that’s often very well written but as a whole it burns—it doesn’t blaze.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on October 24, 2015 at 11:17 am

    For those of you who want a succinct look at the “independent herd” mentality of arts coverage google this book — from the excited crit-chatter in the mainstream (NPR, New York Times, LATimes) to the ‘thinky’ pieces in the wanna-be mainstream (The Atlantic, The Millions) it is quite a steaming pile of blather, if a touch pathetic. I have no idea if the book is good or not, but reading the frenzied attempt to whip up a frenzy is amusing. And it suggests how desperate the media has become to make reading matter — in commercial terms.

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