Review: City on Fire – Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire The individuals who live within this extraordinary first novel are: Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city’s largest fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown’s punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter; his idealistic neighbor; and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park. Their entangled relationships–which stretch from post-Vietnam youth culture to the fiscal crisis, from small-town Georgia to greater L.A.–open up the loneliest-seeming corners of the crowded city. And when the infamous blackout of July 13th, 1977 plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives will be changed forever.

This is a 900+ page behemoth of a novel that weighs at least three pounds. I realize that isn’t a very important fact to start off with, but I want to let you know that I read all 900+ pages of it and dragged it around with me, and I completely regret doing it. City on Fire first came to my attention when I heard that there had been a publisher bidding war over it and it had finally been sold for $2 million. I feel that the person who was responsible for buying this novel is probably kicking themselves because not only was this a commercial failure, it was also a literary one.

The first problem with this novel was that it wasn’t marketed properly. Apart from hearing a few things about it on book podcasts and on a few book websites, there was nothing. It won no awards, and I think the publisher lost faith in it as soon as the reviews that came in were negative. Secondly, this book is far too long. It needed severe editing because the story gets lost in this rambling narrative style that doesn’t do the reader any favours. Thirdly, the blurb on the book is completely misleading. City on Fire is not about a murder, in fact, it’s about everything but the murder.

I could keep going and listing all the problems with this book, but here’s the main problem. It sets out to be this sprawling great American novel, and at the end of the day, it’s a poor man’s Infinite Jest. It tries so hard to capture the reader’s attention that it ends up just being painful to read. The writing isn’t very good and tries to hard to be literary and profound, but I just found it pretentious.

That’s not to say that there weren’t things I really liked about it. I liked the fact that there was a shooting that the book revolved around, but I wanted it to be more about that. I liked that there were all these characters (I love books that have a lot of characters and when their story arcs all intersect with each other), but the problem was that the characters all sounded like the same person. My favourite character was William Hamilton-Sweeney, and I felt like he should have been more central to the novel than he was. I also liked the “interludes” that broke up the different parts of the novel (a letter, a newspaper article, a ‘zine), but I found myself confused sometimes about their purpose in the book.

I don’t know what the purpose of this book was, and I think that I’m going to take a long break from reading more White American authors who are writing sprawling epics about New York and Brooklyn. I don’t think I can read another one of these for a long time.

Sorry Garth Risk Hallberg, I doubt I will be reading your future books.


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