How do you review a 950 page debut novel which garnered its author a $2 million advance? That’s the million dollar, or 450 page question hanging over our heads right now. Surely the sheer weight (both literal and figurative) of the book is too much. Surely author Garth Risk Hallberg’s ambitious plot and prose, his references to Foucault, Salinger and Shakespeare so literary as to make this book unreviewable. Critic proof. City on Fire is many things: a decent crime novel, an occasionally mediocre Dickensian interrogation of punk-era New York, and at times, a smart character study. It is also overlong, and packed to the rafters with cliché. There’s a masterpiece in there, you feel, but it’s drowning under the weight of everything else.
City on Fire is at its core, a thriller. On New Year’s Eve 1976, a young woman is shot in a park in New York. No-one witnesses the shooting, but quickly, a narrative assembles itself around a cast of characters who all have some kind of relationship with the girl, climaxing in the 1977 summer blackouts and subsequent riots. There’s her anarchist gang of squatter friends, a boy who fawns over her, the older man she’s having an affair with, a journalist writing an article about her father. Circling around all of them is the Hamilton-Sweeneys, a Trump-esque family corporation conducting nefarious deeds in the city. Hallberg gives us several narratives (there are nine main narrative voices, as well as a few one-off chapters from other perspectives in the form of newspaper articles, handwritten letters, and in one particularly inventive sequence, a punk fanzine) covering all of these stories and perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how easy it is to follow them. There’s a clarity in the storytelling here which is hugely welcome. Whether it’s ‘Prophet Charlie’ and his falling in with a group of punk arsonists, or Richard’s journalistic investigations into a potential terrorist attack on the city, Hallberg never lets the reader feel lost.
However, it’s safe to say that some elements of the novel are more interesting than others. Hallberg seems to love the romance of the gutter, and his cast of pseudo-intellectual drug addict arsonists, come across as not nearly as much of a trainwreck as one might imagine, and their antics call to mind an awkward middle-class fantasy of living on the breadline. Furthermore, Hallberg’s characterisation of Sam, the victim around which this story spins, is so manic-pixie-dream-girl that you can hear Zooey Deschanel speaking each and every line (the way she introduces Charlie to Patti Smith is so similar to Natalie Portman’s Garden State Shins scene that you’ll balk). Worse still is Hallberg’s fascination with the wasp-ish Hamilton-Sweeney’s, especially in the turgid middle third of the book in which we flash back and forth across decades of one-percenter business dealings and awkward family gatherings. For a book which promises to be a portrait of 1977 New York, we’re given so much of the upper class life that by the time biker gangs are trashing the streets, you can’t help but see them as a faceless mob.
It does seem at times too as though Hallberg has fallen into the same tropes as many Great American Novelists before him – romantic drug addicts, the older man having affairs with younger women, writers struggling to finish their magnum opus, hell, somehow for a book set in 1977 we even get a 9/11 reference.
So what works then? Hallberg is a terrific writer, that’s for certain. He can string a sentence together with the best of them, some of his characters (Mercer and Charlie in particular) are memorable and evocative. He also manages to plot a decent mystery. The central narrative of Sam’s shooting is resolved in a way which is both satisfying and surprising. The book, split into several books/parts keeps the pace up often, and is absolutely enthralling in its opening and closing sections. In fact, when the book stays put in the present day narrative, it’s as close to great as you are likely to read all year.
So, City on Fire is a mixed bag. It’s easy to see why Garth Risk Hallberg (yes, his middle is Risk, apparently) has been hyped up so much, though perhaps less easy to see why he was handed such a huge advance. The book, when it wants to be, is a monumental achievement, packed with rich description and stunning writing, but is on occasion, baggy and frustrating. Hallberg it seems is the opposite of that favourite Oscar Wilde quote, he spends most of the book up in the stars with the Trumps and Kardashian’s of his world, trying desperately to look down at the gutter. His failure to capture the reality of his working class characters is probably the book’s biggest misstep (the squalor that some of his character’s live in, is laughably tame), and the less said about his female characters (this book would not pass the Bechdel test, despite 950 pages of material) the better. But there is something in there that makes this a book I’d recommend. After all, this enormous book is evidence of great ambition on the part of the author, and you can’t argue with ambition.
Any Cop? In the end, City on Fire has its issues. It is a problematic book to some extent, and that makes it difficult to outright praise. It is not the masterpiece that it’s claiming to be. But there’s so much to admire and like about the book that it’s also difficult to ignore. In short, whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a hell of a wild ride to take, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.