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28 October 2015updated 24 Nov 2015 1:50pm

Urban sprawl: the supersized City on Fire from Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire is not bad, but it also is not great - and it might have been if it had been halved.

By Sarah Churchwell

It is usually bad form to focus a review on the length of the book under discussion. Conventionally, length is part of what Henry James called the donnée, the given of a book, which is the aspect with which critics shouldn’t quarrel. They may not admire the execution, but they should accept the novel’s premise and parameters; to do otherwise is like a restaurant critic reviewing a steak dinner and saying she would have preferred pizza: it’s a kind of category error. But when the author hauls an entire side of beef on to the table, the critic may reasonably wish for a filet mignon instead.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire extends to well over 900 pages. At page 600, having already finished a long novel, I felt my heart sink at the thought of another full novel to go. It is a kind of presumption, to demand that much time and attention from your reader. The story of his book becomes a matter of measurements: its heft is matched by the reported $2m that Knopf, the original publisher, paid for it. The reader is left with only one salient question: was it worth it?

Reading this ambitious, sprawling, promising, uneven debut novel, I was reminded of a story Arthur Miller once told, to the effect that a certain book, though long, was not good. In the case of City on Fire, it should rather be said: this book, though long, is not bad. But it is not great, and it might have been if it had been halved.

The setting is New York from Christmas 1976 to 13 July 1977, the start of a notorious 24-hour blackout. The approach is Dickensian, an urban panorama sweeping high and low, in search of figures who epitomise a kind of body politic, a sociocultural cross-section of New York at its grittiest, before it was sanitised. The perspective shifts across a hundred-odd chapters and a dozen or so characters, whose lives link. The main action takes place in 1977 but the story ranges forward to New York after 9/11 and back to the 1950s, offering characters’ backstories, and their futures, and even their paraphernalia, as Hallberg reproduces handwritten letters, fanzines, school reports and other detritus of modern life.

The plot hinges around a shooting on New Year’s Eve 1976. Samantha Cicciaro, a beautiful, intelligent, disaffected Long Island teenager enamoured of the punk scene, is found shot in the head but still alive in Central Park. The man who finds her, Mercer Goodman, is a black, gay aspiring writer from Georgia living with William, scion of a powerful financial family, the Hamilton-Sweeneys. William is a would-be artist and former singer in a punk band called Ex Nihilo, of whom Sam Cicciaro is a fan. Sam has been staying in a squat with other former band members, including Nicky Chaos, a self-described “post-humanist” ­nihilist with anarchist leanings. Nicky has been approached by Amory Gould, “the Demon Brother”, who is connected to the Hamilton-Sweeneys – and who sees a way to make a fortune from urban blight. William’s sister has recently separated from her husband and learns that her father is about to be indicted for insider trading. The police and a reporter begin investigating, and Hallberg’s story, which orbits around a history of the Hamilton-Sweeneys, unfolds.

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City on Fire achieves the Dickensian feel of a network of lives and stories fated to intersect in the city, a fictional conceit that is unrealistic but offers a compensatory fantasy redeeming us from urban anonymity, an ameliorative vision that people are connected after all. It circles around melodramatic, even silly events: a bomb plot strains credulity, while a real-estate financial conspiracy is orchestrated by a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain.

The book is thoroughly researched, but Hallberg was not alive during the 1970s, and sometimes it shows. He has a talk-show radio host described as a “shock jock”, a phrase that didn’t come into popular use until the 1980s, with Howard Stern. William’s sister, Regan, spends a great deal of time at her sorority at Vassar, which has never had sororities; in 1961 she dismisses her adolescent predilection for Sylvia Plath, although Plath did not become famous until 1965. More important than small factual errors are cultural anachronisms that project millennial values and concepts on to the past: characters speak of “enabling” destructive behaviour and women jog and do yoga, all of which are recent trends that were anomalous to the point of oddity in the 1970s.

There is no question that Hallberg can write, but he can also overwrite. When one of the Ex Nihilo disciples walks into the story we are told that in “skulked a hulking punk named Solomon Grunge”. A masked guest at a party is a “horripilating Scaramouche”; a baseball glove is “scrotally scrunched”; Nicky Chaos gives a smile that “is an artful rip in the denim of time”.

This stylistic excess is symptomatic of the novel’s prolixity, and makes it increasingly difficult for Hallberg to maintain control: to cite just one example, Mercer Goodman disappears for 200 pages, the length of an entire novel, and the story doesn’t seem to notice. In addition to defending the author’s right to his donnée, Henry James once observed that life is all inclusion and confusion, but art is all discrimination and selection. City on Fire is a formidable achievement in more ways than one, but it succumbs to the gig­antism of a supersize culture – which perhaps, more than anything else, makes it a book for our time. 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99, 944pp)

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister