Sunday, March 20, 2016

City on Fire - Garth Risk Hallberg (2015)

I first heard about City on Fire on NPR.  Usually I listen to NPR when I drive out to courthouses in collar counties, so this must have been in August or later of last year.  (Update: I believe that day was October 20, 2015, a.k.a. the Day Before Back to the Future Day, or the Day Before the Cubs Would Not Win the World Series Day, due to this.) It had just come out, with a huge buzz attached.  I had no immediate interest to read it, because in fact I had just re-read Please Kill Me and the idea of reading about a fictional group in the same milieu struck me as dull: what fun is it when it's populated by characters we don't recognize?  Ragtime and Underworld successfully blended recognizable personas into their narratives--and yeah, even though Hallberg doesn't reference DeLillo in his acknowledgements at the end, this is basically an alternate version of that heavy tome about New York in the 70's (mostly).  Some remark that it owes a debt to The Bonfire of Vanities and other works by Tom Wolfe, an author I have never read but have always been mildly curious about (in fact my sister recommended that very volume to me recently).

Then, the Christmas season rolled around and my parents asked me to send a letter to Santa to them.  I had been requested in the comments to the review of Modern Romance to consider City on Fire or Book of Numbers and I gave Santa the choice.  On Christmas morning I felt a hardcover heavy gift and unwrapped it to find this.  

I started reading it January 9, 2016, and took brief breaks to read and review Why We Write about Ourselves and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.  This book lurked in the background.  And I was writing the review of Just Kids as I began City on Fire, and will now be reading M Train as I write the review of City on Fire.  For some reason, this feels a little too close for comfort:

"Two days before the shooting, Samantha dreamed of Patti Smith.  She herself was in a pitch-black room somewhere.  She could not see the walls or reach them--she was unable to move--but the room felt small.  And there was a window nearby, she sensed, a vista of mountains and seas and tiny humans paddling around in canoes and just generally going about their business, if only she could see it.  And then Patti appeared above her in a caul of low blue wattage and informed her that a time was coming when she would have to choose." (739)

So it took me about two months, and I really don't read all that often--just mainly at lunch and on the train ride home and sometimes before bed.  If I'm taking more time out to read something than that, it usually means I really like it.  In this case, I liked it, but I also was pressed to finish it because I don't think I'll be able to renew M Train and need to finish and review that in the next three weeks.  So I was trying to make progress.  

Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook to ask if he should read Infinite Jest and another friend proposed a 100 page test to determine if a book was worth reading.  It made me think of this.  I couldn't finish IJ and tried twice.  City on Fire is significantly easier reading.  It has relatively broad appeal, but it might fail the 100 page test.  This is mainly because it operates with a cast of characters that doesn't fully coalesce for several hundred more pages.  Still, the writing is engaging, and once one finishes it, somewhat awe-inspiring.  Don't misunderstand--this will not be named to the Best Books of Flying Houses--but it's certainly in the "also ran" category with that Brownstein memoir read concurrently.  Then again, this book is much more entertaining than the Raymond Carver biography.  Basically, Hallberg establishes himself right out of the gate as an Ambitious Writer.  I actually think this would be a much better book if it were about 300 pages shorter, but in spite of some annoying qualities, one must respect the sheer gesture.  This is much much more than a rehash of Please Kill Me.


What is the plot of this book?  Well, it opens on William and Mercer, a gay couple, white 33-year-old and black 24-year-old, moving a Christmas tree down a block in a shopping cart.  William is a former heroin addict and Mercer is a high school English teacher at an all-girl's school.  It then shifts to Regan, (William's sister) and her husband Keith, and their two kids, Will and Cate.  Regan and Keith are separated as the novel opens, around Christmas--and here I should mention a unique feature of this book: it shifts around in time a lot.  As in, each new section seems to begin at some point further back in the past.  Or rather, the chapters alternate in time.  Effectively, there is a "present" part of the book, a "past" part, and a "future" part (which really could be one of the best parts about the entire book, but feels oddly underdeveloped, or tacked on).  The "present" encompasses December 1976 through July 1977 (New Year's Eve and the night of the NYC Blackout serve as bookends).  The "past" primarily concerns 1959 - 1976, and the "future" concerns 1980 - 2004.

William and Regan are the children of a corporate scion, heirs to a fortune.  William used to be in a punk band called Ex Post Facto, which was "taken over" by an imitator known as Nicky Chaos.  At certain points, there is reference to a t-shirt that reads "Please Kill Me," but this band does not sound at all like Richard Hell and the Voidoids.  A number of young people have gotten into the punk scene, and one of them is Samantha, who lives on Long Island.  She is the daughter of a "fireworker," which supplies one of the novels primary motifs.  She is also friends with Charlie, who is adopted but raised Jewish by his parents, and later reads the Bible and establishes himself as a "prophet."  Charlie is in love with Samantha, but in practice they are "best friends."  They go to a show on New Year's Eve and meet other band members/groupies D.T. (Delirium Tremens), Solomon Grungy and Sewer Girl.  In a way, these other band members feel oddly cliched or underdeveloped--but I really shouldn't complain about underdeveloped characters in a 900+ page book.

But then, Samantha has to go, and Charlie later plans to meet her at 72nd St just before midnight.  Meanwhile, nearby on the upper west side, Regan is at her family's lavish annual ball, feeling awkward, and runs into Mercer, who is also feeling awkward and crashing the ball as a way of finding William, who has walked out and disappeared after a small fight.  It occurs to me that Mercer spends way too much of this novel trying to find William.

William and Regan's father, also named William, is being held over in Chicago because of "bad weather," so he cannot attend the party.  His first wife passed away, and he remarried Felicia.  Her brother, Amory, is soon invited into William's family business.  Amory is sort of a sinister character and feels more cartoonish than the rest.  Note: I have never seen a character named Amory anywhere else except here, and I'd prefer that future authors do not use the name for villains.

Now something happens this evening in Central Park--there is a shooting.  One of the characters (it's really not a spoiler to say who, but I will keep mum) ends up spending the majority of this novel on life support in Beth Israel Hospital, and one of the most unsatisfying elements of the ending is the ambiguity of their fate.  Perhaps another reader could elucidate the intended effect, or probable truth.

This shooting is so compelling that a journalist begins investigating all of the involved characters.  This journalist later meets up with his neighbor, a Vietnamese-American girl named Jenny, and share nightly whiskey nightcaps.  Jenny works for Bruno, an art gallery owner and dealer, who has been something of a mentor and protector of William.

I think I've covered most of the characters.  At this point I must comment, as I often do, that this also reminded me of my first novel, Daylight Savings Time.  There is a cast of characters with interlocking narratives and coincidences.  It concerns a relatively specific time and place.  One of the characters is heir to a mini-fortune and has no anxieties or insecurities about his lack of a professional life.  There are drug sequences.  And both include a fantasy about being interviewed by The Paris Review.  All comparisons aside, City on Fire is more ambitious and much better.


I forgot one more character: the polio-stricken NYPD detective that is friends with the journalist.  It's fair to say that some characters come across more strongly than others, and Pulaski initially interviews Mercer after he discovers the shooting victim.  Then he kind of fades out of the narrative for a while and later gets introduced as one of the characters that get "first personish-third person" treatment.  The novel only breaks into first person when Will narrates.  That feels like a bit of a spoiler, so I'm sorry, but part of the fun of this novel is trying to figure out how everything is going to end, or who that person was in the opening pages talking about their cell phone vibrating.

One reviewer commented that most readers will identify with one character most strongly, if not all of them.  For him, it was Charlie.  And I've got to admit, I found Charlie's chapters oddly tedious at first.  To me, they were the most cliche.  However, as it went on, I grew to like them, and maybe that is just because Charlie is one of the few characters that undergoes something of a transformation in the novel.  Many of the characters change, but he is the only one that transforms.  And I did find one passage from one of his chapters notably beautiful, the kind of writing that I've sometimes endeavored to produce.

But I've just re-read that segment (from pages 576-579), which is basically when he kisses Sam for the first time, under kind of gross circumstances, and none of the passages are especially beautiful.  I guess what I meant was, the whole atmosphere of the scene, as it takes place on July 4, 1976, the bi-centennial, and the setting is just sort of perfect.

Also, I've re-read the last chapter discussing the shooting victim, and it appears that there is something of a definitive resolution.  I'm surprised I missed it the first time, but Hallberg does have his way of obfuscating that can sometimes seem like he is just showing off his vocabulary.  Again the book could be a lot shorter with a fair amount of fluffy stuff taken out, but it doesn't feel that bloated due to its large cast of characters.  Many of the same events get repeated over and over again, and retold from different perspectives.  To some this may seem tedious, and it can be, but on balance remains entertaining.


Another one of my friends posted a link to the "50 Most Unacceptable Sentences in City on Fire" and I glanced at it when I was still in the first couple hundred pages.  A couple other links showed up on Facebook beneath it, like one from the NY Post that rips this novel to shreds.  The negative reviews have a point, but the NY Post gets it wrong.  They make fun of Hallberg for listening to Billy Joel instead of the Ramones or Television, but there's nothing wrong with Billy Joel!  "Captain Jack" was pretty much my soundtrack to NYC in late 2001.

Clearly there are flaws in the novel, and there are some really pretentious sentences.  But on the whole, the book is pretty down-to-earth.  It's readable.  It's not a challenge like IJ.  A couple critics have made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and something about the tone did remind me a lot of The Corrections (read almost a year ago, sad!).  I think the film rights have already been sold and an HBO Series may or may not be in the cards, and another review focused on how Hallberg's writing was "televisual" and influenced by The Wire and seemingly made to be adapted.  I would watch the show, and I think the show would be one of those that has the potential to eclipse its written precursor.

Final point: I think this book grows on you.  It can be a little awkward at the beginning, but by the end, you will probably be invested in the characters and know them better than most people you know in real life.  And if you have lived in NYC, it will probably feature a scene close to your past neighborhood(s).  "You can usually find a cab up on Clinton," (116) rang true to me, at least in 2011.

And with several of the characters as artists, Hallberg uses the novel as something of a mirror to the work created by his characters:

"It was as if William Hamilton-Sweeney, despite to her knowledge never having sold so much as a painting, had been trying to re-create the face of the entire city, right here in this attic.  She couldn't tell if it was good, exactly, but no one could say it wasn't ambitious." (667)

Hallberg is only a few years older than me, so he couldn't have firsthand knowledge of the way the city felt in 1977, but it feels pretty real.  


Owitz said...

Infinite Jest is such a great book but it barely passes the 150 page test

Anonymous said...

As someone who was in his twenties in NYC in 1977, I can tell you that the incredible number of anachronisms and the things the author got totally, laughably wrong about live in the city back then made it impossible for me to like the book unless I imagined it as a fantasy world. I guess I am being picky, but there are nearly a dozen anachronisms about the transit system alone (no kneeling buses back then, the local subway lines had double letters, the numbered trains went to different places in Brooklyn, etc.). There's no sense of what life really was like in NYC in 1977.

To me, this was like NYC the way the TV show "Dallas" was like the city Dallas. And I never could get past that. But I could see where readers who didn't live in NYC in 1977 wouldn't mind.

Anonymous said...

P.S. - I think my comment will come across as stupid, but I wanted to be brief and not get into all the things that are factually wrong about NYC in 1977, including the way people talked (Hallberg uses expressions that weren't known or used then). But maybe you can understand how someone totally familiar with a lot of NYC back then would have trouble with the novel. It's like I think you went to Brooklyn Law School. Imagine if a reporter for a magazine came to Brooklyn Law School for a day when you went there, and then wrote a long article about what life was like at the time at that law school. If you've ever read in a newspaper or magazine about some place you know very well, and the writer hasn't really experienced the environment enough, you will dislike the article in a way outsiders will not because they don't better. Does this make sense at all, or do I sound like a lunatic?

This sort of goes back to my big anger at this novel, which is not based on the author (a very smart and nice person I have met on numerous occasions) but the disservice his editors did. They did not do effective copy-editing or editing that would have not only caught a lot of the anachronisms and infelicities, but they would have tightened the novel and cut it in half.

It's pretty well-known that this novel received a humongous advance and failed to sell anywhere the number of copies they expected it to. That was due to the hype and the editing issues (or non-editing issues). They really ended up screwing Hallberg, who will have a hard time recovering from the commercial disaster of this novel -- something quite apart from the worth of the book itself.

My comment about the TV show "Dallas": the author modeled this book on "The Wire," the novelistic HBO series, probably the best TV show ever made, but that show was written by someone who knew Baltimore like the back of his/their hand(s), knew the police, the waterfront, the public schools, the drug dealers, the newspapers with insider knowledge. "Dallas" was written by people in L.A. who didn't know the city in the 80s. It was phony, and to me, the utter phoniness of "City on Fire" -- so evident to someone who lived in that milieu in that period of time -- was something I could never get past.

Hallberg could have written a great "City on Fire"-type novel about the NYC and Brooklyn he does know, or his editors could have helped him shape and correct the problems in this novel (and cut, cut, cut) to make it not only a better book -- one that wasn't shut out of all the awards (which was unexpected) -- but which sold a lot better and wouldn't have made the author look out to be someone who flopped bigly.

The publisher is to blame for the problems in this novel.

JK said...

I can see how the way I ended this review invites this sort of comment, that it "feels pretty real," when I wouldn't know what 1977 NYC was really like. The anachronisms you mention are shocking, but could have been averted and I could see why it turns you off.

There were a few moments, which I unfortunately did not highlight in my review, when I felt that certain expressions or turns of phrase had not yet come into use. But what could I say for sure if I wasn't there? I guess my uncertainty subconsciously affected my process.

I would agree with you that the book could have been made better by editing, but I think they wanted to make a statement with how big and heavy the actual object became. It did seem like it was written with serialization in mind, and though you mention it being a flop, if it is in fact ever made into a series and gets any kind of attention, it would be a redemption for the author and its text.

Thanks for your comment!