Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, has been the hot topic of the literary world for a year or so. Why? Well there’s a lot of money involved. In circles of critics and publishers, Hallberg’s mammoth debut was being praised as nothing short of brilliant, and Hallberg a shoe-in as the next great American novelist. What this is means is that upon being published one can pretty much guarantee a load of bad reviews on sites such as Amazon or Goodreads due to the impossibility of any novel living up to the hype City on Fire was receiving before anyone had even officially agreed to publish it. I ordered it for two reasons: 1. I finally had money and could afford a hardcover; and 2. I wanted to read and review a novel that wasn’t 20 years old.
I don’t know what I expected with the book, and information on it was seemingly at a premium. What I ended up seeing was another American literary adventure into the family dynamic (the upper-class, white family dynamic). Accompanying this now standard part of classically great American writing was a series of breaks into six degrees of separation. We don’t spend much official time sorting out the issues of the Hamilton-Sweeney’s (First prize for most pretentious name in literature), instead they are hinted at, something to pull the reader back in, almost reminding him/her/them that there does exist a central focus to the novel. The two heirs of the H-S fortune, William and Regan, spend most of the novel at odds with the circumstances they were born into and the choices their parents make.
This becomes a recurring theme of the novel: kids running away from their parents and parents upsetting their kids with life choices. Of the plethora of main characters (Mercer, William, Regan, Charlie, Samantha, Keith, Jenny, Richard, Pulaski) a few flee to or go deeper within New York to prove their worth. They want the city to reveal to the world what they already know: That they’re special. That there is something about them that props them up above the rest. The others take the world as it is and take a multitude of approaches to attempt to change it. All these approaches are in their own way (indirectly) commented upon by resident anarchist philosopher Nicky Chaos, a character that all of them are entwined with either sexually, emotionally, or ontologically. One by one, as Nicky would expect, the city chews them up and spits them out. As he thinks to himself near the end of the novel, while driving away on a long stretch of highway, to get anything done one must act upon it, not wait or ask permission. In no way do I endorse the ramblings of Nicky Chaos.
Nicky ends up being our resident philosopher, but he is also at the extreme end of situation. He is a control freak despite his being totally at odds with control. His cries of revolution are hollow, as they are empty. If a new system was set up, he would again cry for more revolution, even if the new system was perfect. Yet, Nicky is the only character in the novel in touch with the human condition. He is under no illusions as to his significance in the scheme of things, and this is his power over the rest of them. Slowly they all begin to realize their own lack of meaning, or that they must create their own as it will never be given to them. Yet this is the revelation that can be discerned merely halfway through the novel. And that becomes the novel’s trouble.
City on Fire is far too long, and I say that as a person that adores long books, be they The Instructions, Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, or A Brief History of Seven Killings. Hallberg is a terrific writer, though too fond of rhetorical questions for my taste, but as seems so common, he is also long-winded. In the end, I’m not sure what the point of Detective Pulaski or Jenny Nguyen was. I can’t say I found myself happy to leave characters for so long after being left with a cliffhanger. When Charlie literally jumps into a burning building to get away from Nicky Chaos and the chapter ends, it’s not a good sign that the next time I encounter him I have forgotten that event and there was no evidence to remind me of it until it just gets casually thrown in and I think, “Oh yeah. That happened. Okay.” All of City on Fire‘s characters are interesting in their own way, but the plot of the novel is completely lost within them. In a week I don’t think I will have a clue what really happened in this novel, despite the fact that it pretty much ties itself up in a bow when it ends. In a way Hallberg Karamazov’s the novel: makes it go on 100 more pages when it should have just ended. As I consider it further, Hallberg writes himself into a corner. The confrontation between William, Regan, and Armory was deeply lacking in substance, possibly due to Armory being the character we are told repeatedly is evil, but yet all his evil occurs off the pages. It’s speculative. If I were a detective I couldn’t convict him. Once this confrontation is over, what is there left to do but tie up lose ends? I am supposed to be on edge about a potential start to anarchy, courtesy of Nicky Chaos, but none of the characters ever feels in danger. The book has notable high points, but its low points really cause it to stumble.
In the end, City on Fire is a book I would link to the phrase, “so close, but no cigar.” There were moments when I would finish a section and think that the book was seriously great. Other times I would be begging to be put out of my misery. The philosophy is there, the humor is there at times, the characters are there, but it doesn’t quite all come together. Nonetheless it’s a unique read, and I wouldn’t tell a soul to avoid it.
Recommended to: Those who are looking for a philosophically interesting book that breaks the mold on linear storytelling and examines the human condition.
Avoid as if it’s Twitter after UNC’s loss and you can’t stand the crying Jordan meme: If you’re a stickler for the plot or truly great literary writing (say, anything less than the best is immediately terrible in your eyes), then I would say you should look elsewhere. Though I believe you could take a great deal from this novel.