I just finished this remarkable book, City on Fire, written by a new voice– Garth Risk Hallberg, in fact his first novel. It’s 900 pages long and normally I would not have tackled it during the school year –being a teacher there is not much time outside of the work day that is not taken up with papers and preparations, let alone sustaining focus over a 900 page journey.
However, a colleague and friend of mine is this author’s mother-in-law. Some time ago she shared that he had received quite a generous advance for this novel, which of course, he and her daughter were pretty excited about. And I heard bits and pieces about the novel’s development over the past year or so. It came out in December and, well, I just had to read it. I purposely did not read any of the reviews because I wanted to come to the novel fresh, but my friend had told me that the infamous Michiko Kakutani (the major critic of the New York Times) loved it and had listed it as one of the top novels of 2015.
It is quite a journey of a read and was totally engrossing as a complicated web of connections unfolds in New York in 1976 and 1977 (with, of course, flashback context from years before and flash forwards to nearly present day), the book climaxing in the power outage of the city in July 1977. There is something miraculous and normal about how our lives intersect with/ impact others and this book rides this surprising and not so surprising wave throughout. Each chapter cycles through a different character (not necessarily chronologically), with an omniscient narrator, who sometimes feels intimately familiar with the characters and it is only at the end of the book that one figures out why and how. The characters are punkers and detectives, corporate businessmen and a fireworks creator, the urban privileged high class and artists, suburbanites and journalists, their lives totally interwoven and interrelated. The writing is exquisite and the vocabulary impressive (phalanstery!) and the cultural knowledge of the time spot on. Even the grittiness of New York is so visceral. The book is epic, large, and definitely ambitious. It is filled with with creative “evidence,” which broadens the reading experience adding an almost cinematic quality. But more importantly it is ultimately filled with generous humanity and compassion.
While reading this novel I knew I had to read it again. The first time one reads a book there is a kind of push to read for plot. One is interested in the characters and their stories and is drawn into their conflict and problems wants to know what happens to them, how things get resolved. Along the way in this book, just as I was connecting the larger threads, there were other pieces and parts that I left dangling and strewn across the literary landscape, knowing I would come back and pick them up later on my second read. This richness unsolved sometimes felt like it left a few gaps, but they were the normal and genuine gaps of life as we all experience it.
This book also works because it makes the reader feel bright and intelligent in putting together the puzzle of this story and yes, one facet of the miraculous puzzle of life. It required mental interaction and by the last 200 or so pages of the book, I simply could not put the book down. The transformation of the “sturm und drang” of the conflicts in the story into art itself at the end was meaningfully clever and emotionally expansive.
There is a lot to think about in this book. Almost every time I pass my friend in the hall at school, we share a few more ideas and responses to the book. My friend recently surprised me that I will be getting an autographed copy of the book from Hallberg in the mail. I am thrilled and have decided that my second read will be with this very book that has been “literally” touched by the author. She has also promised me that the next time he is in town visiting, she will invite me over and I can talk with the author himself. Now how awesome is that?!