Generally speaking, I am loathe to give up on books. The same content loyalty that drove me to read all the Sookie Stackhouse novels and to watch Gossip Girl and Glee to their bitter conclusions means that it takes a real nightmare of a novel for me to throw in the towel.
But I have tried, and failed, three times to get invested in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, a debut novel for which Hallberg received a $2 million advance. Set in 1970s New York City, COF follows an ensemble cast of characters whose lives serendipitously connect one New Year’s Eve. The novel careens forward and backward from that moment, detailing the first interactions of the various personalities—the young gay couple, the punk teenager and her doting best friend, the aging journalist and his gruff middle-aged subject—and how those interactions change and grow and are in many cases forever changed after that night. Also there’s an attempted murder.
By virtue of plot and style, City on Fire evokes a variety of other books: The Goldfinch, Freedom, Bonfire of the Vanities. And while none of COF’s plotlines or characters feel plagiarized or even particularly referential, there is still something fundamentally unoriginal about this novel, as though it were concocted specifically to sit next to Tartt and Franzen and Wolfe on the shelf, and not to inspire anything in its own right. When I was reading it, I was—for the most part—engaged with the characters. But when I wasn’t, COF would languish in my purse or under my bed for days or even weeks at a time; the narrative didn’t pull me in unless I was already in the middle of it, and even then barely.
Hallberg isn’t the worst writer, and COF is so clear about what it’s trying to be that it took me a long time to admit it wasn’t working. But his overeager attempts to embody the voices of his characters (something, admittedly, I have long nagged Franzen for not even attempting to do) are sometimes cringe-worthy. For example, awkward teenager Charlie’s inner monologue—”but there weren’t like great throngs of people on that uptown train;” “He was going to like rupture”—feels painfully forced.
Mostly though, COF is plodding and dull, too wrapped up in its own literary-ness to avoid the pitfalls of predictability and unoriginality. Hallberg’s separation of the novel into viewpoint-based chapters (with a few other bits sprinkled throughout, like the beginnings of a different novel, or letters between relatives) suggests he might have been better served by a short story collection, or a novella. Or by giving Donna Tartt the $2 million and letting her write it for him.
TITLE: City on Fire
AUTHOR: Garth Risk Hallberg
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: The Bonfire of the Vanities meets a Lifetime Original Movie
FIRST LINE: “A Christmas tree was coming up Eleventh Avenue.”