City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg; 2015
As I was reading City on Fire, a few people asked me what it was about and I grumbled with frustration. It’s difficult to describe it other than a massive family drama/saga-New York City-“American”-“epic.” Sigh. I read in a few places that this was being compared to A Visit From the Goon Squad. Maybe, but I’m so not sold on that comparison. Honestly, I need a big ol’ break from these NYC books. There are other cities. This is one of those books that tries way too hard to be the quintessential American novel that it’s at times a little cringe-y. You’ve got your gay, black aspiring writer from the South, NYC aristocracy, the prodigal son, 1970’s underground anarchy punk movement, 4th of July fireworks, American suburbia, divorce, and so on.
Each character, no matter their age, gender, or race, has the same voice and perspective. It’s a third person omniscient narrator, so I understand why that happened, but, for example, a sixth grader literally reads Hamlet, understands it, and then writes a provocative misogynist essay about it to get his parents’ attention. Okay, no. A sort-of murder mystery grounds the plot and ties all of the characters together, but after about 300 pages in I kind of forgot about the shooting and didn’t care about it. When it came time to either return this to the library or renew it, I almost returned it but for the feeling that abandoning it 500 pages in was cowardly and lame.
All of that said, there is no doubt that Hallberg has serious talent. I think I would have loved this book if it was half the size. His prose was pretty much the only thing that kept me pushing through, because his writing is truly a delight. He writes with precision and has a strong hold over his sentences. But City on Fire was just a little much. There’s a lot going on, a lot of characters to keep track of, and a lot of pages (read: TOO MANY of all of the above). I will say that for as long as it is (911 pages), it goes fairly “quickly” in the larger scheme of things because Hallberg’s writing is so readable. The Demon Brother was such a deliciously unsavory character that I was just like YES – he was so well-executed and I could envision him perfectly.
Despite how it sounds, I don’t regret reading this. It didn’t feel like a waste of time and I didn’t fully dislike it. There’s no question that this is an impressive first novel, but for as big as it is, and with all of the hype, it definitely didn’t blow my mind. It was kind of like, meh, but I do look forward to reading whatever Hallberg puts out next – with the exception that it’s a more reasonable length.