Better Late than Never: City on Fire

I aim to read one book of 500+ pages in each month of 2017. My first Doorstopper of the Month is City on Fire, the 2015 debut novel from Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s common knowledge that Hallberg earned a six-figure advance for this 911-page evocation of a revolutionary time in New York City. When it was first published I didn’t think I had the fortitude to tackle it and had in mind to wait for the inevitable miniseries instead, but when I won a copy in a goodie bag from Hungerford Bookshop I decided to go for it. I started the novel just after Christmas and finished it a few days ago, so like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch it took me roughly a month to read because I had many other books on the go at the same time.

img_1069Opening on Christmas Eve 1976 and peaking with the July 1977 blackout, the novel brings its diverse cast together through a shooting in Central Park. Insider traders, the aimless second generation of some of the city’s wealthiest aristocrats, anarchist punk rockers, an African-American schoolteacher, a journalist and his Vietnamese neighbor, a fireworks manufacturer, a policeman crippled by childhood polio – the characters fill in the broad canvas of the city, everywhere from Wall Street boardrooms to drug dens.

The real achievement is not how Hallberg draws each character but how he fits them all together. The closest comparison I can make is with one of Dickens’s long novels, say David Copperfield, where, especially as you approach the conclusion, you get surprising meet-ups of figures from different realms of life. The relaxed chronology reaches back to the 1950s and forward to 2003 to give hints of where these people came from and what fate holds for them.

City on Fire might sound like a crime drama – I can see a miniseries working in a manner comparable to The Wire – and the mystery of who shot Samantha Cicciaro does indeed last from about page 80 to page 800-something. But finding out who shot her and why (or why investment bankers would be funding a posse of anarchists, or who pushed a journalist into the river) is something of an anticlimax. The journey is the point, and the city is the real star, even though it’s described with a kind of affectionate disdain in the passages that follow:

The stench of the basement level reached him even here, like hot-dog water mixed with roofing tar and left in an alley to rot

The park on New Year’s Day had been a blasted whiteness, or a series of them, hemmed in by black trees like sheets snagged on barbed wire.

It seemed impossible that he’d chosen to live here, at a latitude where spring was a semantic variation on winter, in a grid whose rigid geometry only a Greek or a builder of prisons could love, in a city that made its own gravy when it rained. Taxis continued to stream toward the tunnel, like the damned toward a Boschian hellmouth. Screaming people staggered past below. Impossible, that he now footed the rent entire, two hundred bucks monthly for the privilege of pressing his cheek to the window and still not being able to see spectacular Midtown views. Impossible, that the cinderblock planter on the fire escape could ever have produced flowers.

Or wasn’t this city really the sum of every little selfishness, every ignorance, every act of laziness and mistrust and unkindness ever committed by anybody who lived there, as well as of everything she personally had loved?

Mercer Goodman, Jenny Nguyen and Richard Groskoph were my three favorite characters, and I might have liked to see more of each of them. I also felt that the book as a whole was quite baggy, and the six Interludes that separate the seven large sections, remarkable as they are (especially an entire fanzine, complete with photographs, comics and handwritten articles), weren’t strictly necessary.

It's definitely a chunkster. For the longest while it felt like I wasn't making a dent.
It’s definitely a chunkster. For the longest while it felt like I wasn’t making a dent.

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Hallberg’s ambition, and on the sentence level the novel is always well wrought and surprising, with especially lovely last lines that are like a benediction. Though it’s mostly set in the 1970s, this never feels dated; in fact, I thought it thoroughly relevant for our time: “even now they’re writing over history, finding ways to tell you what you just saw doesn’t exist. The big, bad anarchic city, people looting, ooga-booga. Better to trust the developers and the cops.”

I won’t pretend that a 900+-page book isn’t a massive undertaking, and I have some trusted bloggers and Goodreads friends who gave up on this after 250 or 450 pages. So I can’t promise you that you’ll think it’s worth the effort, though for me it was. A modern twist on the Dickensian state-of-society novel, it’s one I’d recommend to fans of Jonathan Franzen, Bill Clegg and Jennifer Egan.

My rating: 4-star-rating

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12 thoughts on “Better Late than Never: City on Fire

  1. Interesting review, Rebecca. I was one of those who gave up, I’m afraid, although I think I only made it to around page 50 or so. Looking forward to seeing what you choose for your eleven future doorstoppers!

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    1. It’s a shame you didn’t get on with it; I know normally you’re quite fond of juicy New York City stories. Can you remember what put you off? The writing style? The characters? You’ve convinced me that I need to try The Nix, anyway, but I may let some time go by in case the stories feel too similar.

      As for future months’ doorstoppers, February’s will be Hame by Annalena McAfee. After that it’s up in the air, but I do plan to try Murakami for the first time this year and his Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is over 500 pages. I also mean to get to A Suitable Boy as a sequel is apparently in the pipeline.

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  2. I’ve heard it compared to Bleak House most often but i don’t remember the plot well enough to say which is more apt. I wanted to give up approximately at both points you mention but of course i pressed on 😎

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    1. Ha ha, no, I certainly wouldn’t wish that on you! Are you all recovered from your shoulder surgery?

      I tried to read this in 50- or 100-page chunks to make real progress with each sitting. Reading just a few bitty chapters at a time wouldn’t work as well.

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      1. That sounds like great advice. I tend to quietly avoid longer works like this one, never consciously doing the math (read this ONE vs. read these THREE) but regularly thinking “not now”. But if I were to adjust my habits (which tend towards reading small bits of a large number of books underway at a given time) and always have something longer which gets a larger amount of the reading time in a given session…well, then, it would make the idea naturally less daunting. I did complete one long book in January (Sylvia Plath’s journals) so maybe I’ll adopt your general 1/month goal and see how it goes (without stressing overly about it, that is). Even though this one isn’t on my stack, I’m kinda interested and your review does make it sound intriguing (after all, how can it not be a little baggy at that length).

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