At 944 densely-packed pages, I felt I deserved a medal, or at the very least a stiff drink, on reaching the end of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. To put it in context, War and Peace is longer, but not by that much. City on Fire is so big – physically big, I mean – that I was limited to reading it at home, rather than risking back injury and taking it on my commute. And it’s a big story too; a vast narrative involving dozens or characters, spanning several decades and flitting between a multitude of locations across New York City.
All things considered, then, I was prepared to hate it. Announced in November 2013 to great fanfare, Hallberg landed a six-figure deal for the book and his publisher described it as the ‘best American novel I’ve ever read’. Could anything ever live up to that kind of hype?
In short, yes and no. Yes, in that it’s a fantastic achievement; mesmerising, addictive in a way that a book this long really shouldn’t be, and full of intrigue. Hallberg’s writing is clear, insightful, and accessible; for all that it runs to almost 1,000 pages, each sentence has been crafted just so.
Hallberg sets out to explore all manner of grand themes, from race to sexuality to the darker side of radical politics. He offers not narrative as a story itself but a number of ‘interludes’ – letters, a magazine article, the ripped pages of a punk fanzine. This is not the kind of story you get bored reading.
Set mostly in 1970s New York – a gritty, almost dystopian landscape of rioting, vandalism, drugs and crime (a far cry from the manicured, expensive city we read of today) – Hallberg chronicles the lead up to a dramatic event on New Year’s Eve 1977 in the first section, then switches focus to the following July, when a city-wide blackout hits.
His characters are a motley crew; an heiress with the requisite eating disorder and her philandering husband, an artist with an addiction problem, and an alcoholic investigative journalist. Then there’s the star of an early punk band and his raggedy, radical acolytes, along with Amory Gould, a Machiavellian figure who apparently has links to them all. But it is through a select few characters, wide-eyed teenage punk fan Charlie, the girl he is unrequitedly fallen for – Sam – and Mercer Goodman, a young black man recently arrived from Georgia – that we gain a window into this seething, troubled world. Through their eyes, most of all, we follow what happens and start to connect the dots as the plot leaps towards its conclusion.
The characterisation is forensic, reminiscent in places of both Tom Wolfe and Colum McCann: two other prominent chroniclers of interlocking Manhattan lives. You’d expect one or two characters to slip in a novel this long and dense, but no, Hallberg gives each character a distinct voice, and a richly imagined back story, whether it’s the sad marriage of Jenny Nguyen’s parents or Charlie’s grief over his father’s passing. It’s what makes City on Fire so engrossing; I wanted to know where each one of their stories ended.
As to the plot itself, though, I cared rather less. It is meandering and often nonsensical, full of red herrings and pointless digressions. The length means that readers need good memories; characters are ignored for hundreds of pages before re-emerging, and throwaway nuggets turn out to be crucial developments. You really have to concentrate.
And the conclusion – when it eventually comes – is something of a let down. The central whodunit of New Year’s Eve is resolved so anticlimactically that I was furious I’d wondered about it for so long. And the bigger mystery, around a radical group’s plans for the city and Amory Gould’s manipulations, is never explained satisfactorily. Towards the end, the chapters become shorter and more erratic, perhaps representing the city burning, but hardly tying up all the loose ends or imparting any great truth. I suspect Hallberg had the whole thing mapped out from the beginning, but reading the final pages felt a bit like looking at Carrie Matheson’s spider map in Homeland. Maybe he knew what was going on; I’m not sure he communicated it as effectively.
Still, if you’ve got the time, and prefer character to plot, it’s worth picking up. As with The Goldfinch, another too-long novel, it’s one to read for the journey, rather than the destination.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg is published by Knopf Publishing Group, and available to buy online here.