That Great, Big Book about Bad, Old New York

Big Think's Jason Gots reviews Garth Risk Hallberg's novel City on Fire

One nice thing about responding to a new book a couple months after it's been published (aside from the fact that it gives you more time to read and think about it) is that you get a panoramic view of the critical responses. Literary criticism (these days, at least) is no different from the rest of online media in that a few ideas (and not always the best ones) tend to dominate the conversation. 


In the case of Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, a debut novel that was one of the "most anticipated literary events of 2015," the stickiest idea was that the book is big. Really, really big. And because of the book's staggering immensity, cautioned many a critic, it is a daunting read. But most agreed that if you should somehow succeed in finishing it, City on Fire would repay the Herculean effort.

Let's get one thing straight: This is not Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. We're talking about a highly engaging, modern literary novel that references punk rock, includes a mock "zine" written by a teenaged character, and has a murder mystery as its backbone. Yes, City on Fire is close to 1,000 pages long. Lots of books are 1,000 pages long. And most other books for grown-ups are around 500 pages long, so if it bothers you, just imagine you're reading two books at once. 

Some readers have pointed out that the book could have been more tightly edited. Maybe so. I didn't have the sense, while reading it, that whole sections were crying out to be lopped off, but it's entirely possible that a tougher editor than me could find more fat to trim. The thing is, this book wants to be a sprawling, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride through a vanished cultural landscape — that of dirty, old 1970s New York City from before Rudy Giuliani shipped all the homeless people off somewhere and replaced the Times Square porn shops with a 50-foot-high painting of Cat in the Hat. It wants to be grand, unwieldy, immersive. It wants to sweep you up and shake you around for a while before letting you go.

And for the most part, it succeeds. It's multiple novels and genres at once — a cacophony of intersecting themes and characters that perfectly captures the incongruities of that time and place (or so I must assume; in winter, 1976, when much of the book's main action takes place, I was a busy four-year-old, building snow forts in a suburb of DC). There's the aforementioned murder mystery, at least four tales of doomed or unrequited romance, a Machiavellian yarn of political intrigue, a brief history of the fireworks industry in America, and much, much more. And Hallberg's prose is as explosive and colorful as the aforementioned fireworks — it crackles with brilliance and does, I must admit, announce the arrival of a very promising young author. 

My one sticking point, literally my one and only, is that the crackling prose sometimes feels overwrought. I say this as someone who knows a lot about the temptation to overwrite. I can't speak for all readers, but I felt quite often that Hallberg's syntactic architecture was interrupting the flow of my reading consciousness, making it go all weird and stuttery. And lest you think I'm some kind of idiot, this isn't an issue of vocabulary or complexity. Take a sentence like: “To him televised football was no more interesting, or even narratively intelligible, than a flea circus.” The flea circus image is really funny, and this is an efficient character brushstroke (the guy really doesn't get sports), but it feels like the words were arranged by an artificial intelligence. It's the difference, maybe, between the pyrotechnics of a gifted young artist and the wizardry of an old master. 

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Postscript vignette: Not long after I finished City on Fire, I was sitting in Housing Works Bookstore Cafe when I recognized the guy at the table next to me. It was Hallberg, being interviewed by a portly, bespectacled British critic with very precise facial hair. I listened for a while, surprised at how, like, um, normal Hallberg sounded in person. Thoughtful responses, nuggets of wisdom, but no ornate, dazzling verbiage. There was something refreshing about the contrast between Hallberg-in-the-flesh and Hallberg-at-the-keyboard. After the interview was over, I introduced myself and had a brief, awkward conversation with the author, who was polite enough but clearly would have preferred, after two hours of talking about himself, to be left alone to browse for books. 

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@jgots is me on Twitter

You might also like our podcast, Think Again, where we surprise smart people with unexpected ideas. Salman Rushdie, Maira Kalman, George Takei, Maria Konnikova, Henry Rollins, Bill Nye, Sam Harris and more have been on. 

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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