City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Vintage Digital (ebook), 2015
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review by the publisher via NetGalley.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1976, and New York is a city on the verge. As midnight approaches, a blizzard sets in – and an unmistakable sound rings out across Central Park. Gunshots. Two of them. The search for the shooter will bring together a rich cast of New Yorkers.
From the reluctant heirs to one of New York’s greatest fortunes, to a couple of Long Island kids drawn to the nascent punk scene downtown. From the newly arrived and enchanted, to those so sick of the city they want to burn it to the ground. All these lives are connected to one another – and to the life that still clings to that body in the park. Whether they know it or not, they are bound up in the same story – a story where history and revolution, love and art, crime and conspiracy are all packed into a single shell, ready to explode.
Then, on July 13th, 1977, the lights go out in New York City.
In New York, you can get anything delivered.
City on Fire didn’t meet my expectations. Based on the blurb alone it sounds like the kind of novel I’d love to get lost in. Hallberg doesn’t quite pull the potential off. The page-length didn’t bother me. I regularly read novels between 800 and 1000 pages long. I live for books that are enormous doorstops. It takes skill to carry a reader to the end of 900+ pages. Hallberg doesn’t have the staying power. City on Fire drags on and on. 300 pages could easily have been cut and I’d have enjoyed the novel a lot more. It just wasn’t necessary for the novel to be so damn long. I struggled to get through the last couple of hundred and had grown bored. Another issue was the characterisation in the novel. There are a lot of characters and none of them really came to life for me. Hallberg never managed to inhabit each character individually. I was constantly lifted out the story. I never heard the character voices but a narrator’s one, pulling me out of the characters and the world between the pages. A novelists job, especially in a big doorstop of a novel is to bring the world and characters to life so much that the reader gets sucked right into it to the extent they lose track of time. If a reader is pulled away from a novel it should be because they choose to and they should look around them, dazed and surprised by how much time has passed. A reader should never be pulled out of the story by the narrator losing control. I couldn’t help feeling that Hallberg was ticking off a list of keys elements for an ambitious novel set in the 70’s. Hallberg should take a leaf out of Stephen King’s book. He’s a master at writing doorstop novels with enormous cast of characters. Under the Dome, IT, The Stand, Duma Key and The Dark Tower novels are just a few examples. City on Fire will probably be adored by a certain type of reader and win awards but Hallberg failed to impress me. Hallberg doesn’t have the skill to pull off a novel as huge and ambitious as City on Fire.