“City on fire, city on fire / One is a gas, two is a match / and we too are a city on fire.”
I’d never heard of City on Fire or Garth Risk Hallberg until the novel was officially released a few weeks ago—rather, I’d never heard of the book/author until I heard how much money someone was actually willing to pay for it. The manuscript for Hallberg’s novel, which found itself passed around in a bidding war, was ultimately won by Knopf for a whopping $2 million. This is quite remarkable for a few reasons: 1. this is Hallberg’s debut novel; he has no repertoire of prior sales to ensure any publishing house is going to get their return on that huge advance, 2. the novel clocks in at just under 1,000 pages, but longer doesn’t always mean better when you’re dealing with a population of people who pride themselves on instant gratification, and 3. I’m sorry, but TWO MILLION?! The second I saw the price tag, this novel pushed all of the others on my TBR List down to become a priority. It wasn’t until I started reading, however, that I realized City on Fire’s value lies within its pages, not its pocketbook.
When you’re dealing with any several-hundred-page novel, the looming question always remains: well, what’s it about? What is City on Fire actually about? That’s a good question, one to which I’ll defer to Hallberg’s assertion: “It’s about a lot of things.” This novel is a conglomerate of stories, themes, conflicts, and revelations told through eyes of New York City, or rather, the people who give it life. It’s narrated a in third person point of view that doesn’t feel detached at all—I typically detest novels told in third person for their lack on interiority and personality, but Hallberg managed to break down the barrier between first and third in the most beautifully personal way—that tells the story of a New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park, and the dozens of lives it came to touch both directly and indirectly; because that’s how life is… infinitely cyclical and interconnected. And I think that’s about as specific as I can get.
I’m so used to reading YA that this was a refreshing and unique challenge for me—not at all in the sense that it’s a hard read, because it truly isn’t, but in the way I had to shift my trained mind away from reading the much of the same genre to tackle something new. And so, here are my Nine Cents…
City on Fire is the most breathtaking—let me say it again: THE. MOST. BREATHTAKING.—example of a postmodern novel that I have ever come across. While the setting begins in the late 70’s, it sure as hell doesn’t stay there. Hallberg takes us forward, backward, sideways, and all ways in between in the most delicate and beautiful of ways. He’s notorious for revealing a bit of information about a character, and not explaining the backstory until a hundred pages later; and in those 100 pages, he’s already taken us into the future, back, and forward again. I don’t know how to explain it in a way that does it justice. It’s like Hallberg wrote the story completely in chronological order, broke up each chapter, put them all into a bingo spinner, and slapped the book together whichever way the cookie crumbled. The most jumbled mess is not jumbled at all—in fact, it is very objectively the most intricate and unprecedented piece of art I’ve come across. I couldn’t imagine the story being told any other way.
The screwy timeline perpetuated the big ticket question: WHAT IS THIS EVEN ABOUT? I never, not even while reading the very last page of the book, knew where Hallberg was going. This is due in part to the way he reveals details in miniscule quantities, only to be explained at a later time. Kind of like a puzzle, where you only get a new piece for every 238749274 pages you read. The other reason was I was so wrapped up in the characters. So freaking drawn in by Sam and Charlie and Keith and William and Regan and Mercer and Nicky and Pulaski and Richard, so desperately trying to connect the dozens of dots Hallberg left me with, as if doing so would leave me with this grand Aha! conclusion. I think we have a tendency to do that a lot, humans. We lose ourselves in the stories of people, thinking that they and we are all that matter, when that couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth.
So in order to get to the bottom of it, being the egocentric human that I am, I first tried to categorically envision a center character, one who would metaphorically explain it all. I wound up with this:
Confusing, right? And no closer to the point. So, I once again set out to reach the center, when it hit me. It’s not about the people. It never was. Take them all away, take away Keith and Regan and Charlie and Sam and and and, replace them with new people, and the exact same story will still stand. Why? Because the City is the constant. People are the City, and the City is people, and the aptly named City on Fire is a story in which the line between the two is burned, and readers can experience a raw, gritty, and real image of one of the most fascinating manmade societal entities in existence. Cities destroy, reclaim, break, heal, change, and reveal all those who live in them, and in return these destroyed, reclaimed, broken, healed, changed, and revealed people shape the cities they inhabit. Not only can this be seen in every day life, but it’s also been the focus of literature for centuries. So, the picture doesn’t centers on a person with lines extending out unidirectionally, but rather it looks like the image below, where each line is infinitely permeable and free-flowing.
Much like the book, I don’t know if this review has a point, and I’m a bit of a loss to give it one. A few other things Hallberg did worth noting:
-I tend to pay extremely close attention to structure, and chapter length. One thing I found very interesting was the choice, whether purposeful or not, to have the first several chapters include dozens of pages, while the chapters in the second half of the book were incredibly short. It’s kind of this beautiful metaphor for life: long and drawn out in the beginning, and then fast moving and brief when the exposition ends.
-I know I preached about not focusing on the characters, but you’d be amiss if you overlooked them completely. Each is developed with such an air of individuality and purpose, but if you were to take just one away the dozen others would be altered infinitely. They come from all walks of life, all on different intertwining paths, so you’re bound to find someone who resonates with you. (Me, I liked Keith.)
-Loved the biblical allusions. They almost didn’t fit at all, but somehow that made them fit even better. Perhaps someone who is more familiar with them would have a deeper appreciation than I do.
-It’s just so fucking profound. When you look at one life, just one, things seem so mundane and shitty. But then you zoom out. You see the lives that one life comes into contact with, and so on and so forth until those lives give way to an entire city, and that city is the most profound thing in the fucking world.
So, do I think this two-million dollar book is the end all, be all? Not necessarily. Hallberg has a tendency to rant on and on about things that are both boring and unnecessary, but hey, that happens to the best of us. Two hundred pages shorter and to the point, and I think he would have nailed it. I also can’t get over the huge sense of lacking I still feel over the end. Like I’m missing something. This huge answer that was supposed to be presented to me, or this conflict that was supposed to be resolved, but was simply overlooked.
I do, however, think that for a debut novel, Garth Risk Hallberg got as close to perfect as he possibly could. Flaws are so easy to overlook when profundity leaks from the simplest of words and scenarios. I don’t regret the immense amount of time I spent swallowing this novel whole, and I encourage you to try it, too. Is my Nine Cents two-million dollar worthy? Who knows, but I can confidently say Garth Risk Hallberg’s is.