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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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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