Garth Risk Hallberg’s City On Fire

City On FireNo single book released in 2015 has been more anticipated than Garth Risk Hallberg’s City On Fire, which is quite a statement when you consider that Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen and Clarice Lispector all saw major releases this year. For my part, I have been eagerly awaiting its publication for years, since it was first announced that a first-time novelist had received an unprecedented $2 million advance and I scoured the Internet for examples of his writing (his contributions to The Millions, in particular, are worth a read). First novels are particularly interesting, both for what they reveal about their authors, and for the fault lines that are almost always visible, the cracks in the design where problems were encountered – problems of form, and character, and style – and gradually overcome or worked around. They are, from the perspective of an apprentice craftsman, infinitely more valuable than the polished perfection of, say, The Great Gatsby or The Sound And The Fury – novels so tightly written that it’s almost impossible to see them as being written at all. So here I am, having just spent the last week of my life immersed in Hallberg’s world, and the overwhelming sensation is one of awe. Awe at the audacity, the ambition, the imaginative effort. Nine hundred pages, multiple narrators, multiple timelines, a plot centered around the attempted murder of a teenage girl but expanding outward, encompassing Wall Street financiers and Long Island loafers; lost children flirting with anarchy; marital strife and family dysfunction – no small wonder that ten years went into the conception and writing of this book.

First, the characters. They are, all of them, deeply wounded, abandoned in one form or another by their parents and left to find their own stumbling path through the world. There is Samantha Ciccario, a Long Island teenager whose mother took off with her yoga instructor and whose father was too overcome by grief to notice his daughter’s pain; or Charlie Weisbarger, the adopted son of a Long Island Jewish couple who, when they finally conceive children of their own, prove unable to make Charlie feel accepted or loved; or the Hamilton-Sweeney’s, Regan and William, heirs to one of New York’s largest fortunes but not, after their mother’s death, capable of commanding their father’s love or affection. Or the anarchists, the Post-Humanist Phalanx, who profess a kind of anarchism fueled by readings of Marx, Nietzsche and Bakunin, but who, at bottom, are lost children themselves, masking their wounded psyches with combat boots, tattoos and a fuck-the-world bravado. The adults – the parents, an ageing journalist, a crippled policeman, the men and women these boys and girls become – are scarcely better, each of them trapped in some pattern of thought or behavior whose origins predate the symptoms by years, decades even. I realize that, in summary, they present less as people than case studies, but one of Hallberg’s most remarkable talents is essentially imaginative, an ability to slip in and out of his characters’ consciousnesses with frightening ease, investing each of them with enough personality to keep them separate in the reader’s mind.

His other great talent, it should be said right now, is for writing itself. Almost every page contains a metaphor of such conceptual originality that I stopped bothering to do my usual underlining and began to take them for granted. And he deftly weaves his metaphors with his characterization, doubling down on their complexity and their usefulness; never, for example, did I get the sense that he was merely showing off, substituting the difficult work of narrative- and character-building for a glitzy, all-consuming style. “The dishes made their own music beneath her moving hands, a mellow clanking, like the sounds Charlie heard when he held his breath and became a submarine in the tub.” The alliteration, the “mellow clanking” of the dishes – these are not, of themselves, especially remarkable, but who is not instantly transported back to their childhood, when baths were a novelty and the experience of hearing sound waves through the water seemed somehow thrilling, by the closing simile? Or consider: “Keith had always tended to see the great events of his life not as things he made happen, but as things that happened to him, like weather.” Such is our introduction to Keith Lamplighter; you know as almost much about him, reading that sentence, as when I first did, and yet we know him utterly, because we know the type and can trace the awful implications of the passive mindset.

If this book has a flaw, ultimately it is that it cannot sustain its own lofty ambitions: scale and scope become substitutes for the rich introspection that lends any plot its emotional weight, and the list of characters simply grows too large for the reader’s empathy. It’s a problem, it seems, Hallberg is keenly aware of. Here, for example, is one of his characters, a writer, not coincidentally, grappling with it: “Family, work, romance, church, municipality, history, happenstance… He wanted to follow the soul far enough along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began. He wanted his articles to be, not infinite exactly, but big enough to suggest infinitude.” Another character tries to convey his belief that time “seemed like an arrow only because people’s brains were too puny to handle the everything that would otherwise be present,” and wishes to find some way “to fit the simultaneity of things into the relentlessly forward-moving frames.” It is the old cartographers problem: a map is useful to the extent that it conveys detail, but the more detail you attempt to pack in, the larger the map grows, until it is so overwhelmingly big that it blankets the very territories it first sought to chart. Ok, so the novel isn’t perfect – few are. But pick it up, test its first few pages; you will discover a book so enchantingly ambitious that it redeems all of the possibilities inherent in good fiction writing, a book to renew your faith that the novel still has a role to play in our world and our culture. And rejoice, for that feeling is increasingly rare.