♥burn in NYC: Review of City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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Image: City On Fire. Fair use for review.

There are a few authors who consistently make molehills out of mountains and although G. R. Hallberg has done so with his first novel, I only hope he doesn’t remain there.

Where to start with this big work? The physical thing, once the poorly designed, bland jacket is thrown away, is a joy to handle. The feel of the paper and binding, the heft and font are great decisions all around.

The writing can’t be so generally lauded. My grandfather used to hear soap opera music and say, “The organ peels another banana.” I always liked that phrase. Still do. City on Fire, (COF) to be crystal clear is one extended soap opera. The novel begins as literature and in a twinkling it’s already stuck on drawn out scenes focused on the intimate thoughts of characters usually in relation to each other. Scenes jump back and forth from one group to another, pausing with cliff hangers in the form of pithy last chapter lines. Where exatly did this back and forthing of stories begin, certainly before Tolstoy. With Defoe? Why was it done? For whatever reasons this fictional archetype is gets annoying with these many sets of characters.

Yes, this is Peyton Place, New York City. Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter in the saga of … by the way, did you know that soapcentral.com says they have Days of Our Lives recaps going back to 1996. I mention this for fans of COF who finish the book and want a future reading recommendation.

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Cast photo from the daytime drama Days of Our Lives. Pictured from left:Edward Mallory, Denise Alexander, Macdonald Carey and Susan Flannery. 1971. Wikimedia Commons.

Characters who the author begins to develop morph to pastiches of themselves and as such begin to evidence predictable emotions, thoughts, and interactions with others. With the movie Citizen Kane everyone wants to figure out what makes Charles Foster Kane tick and because of this he’s a real engine driving every action and thought of everyone else in the movie. In COF the goal is similar, to center everyone with their fleeting memories and scenes that exist for only a moment, like fireworks — one of Hallberg’s characters says, “All those threads…converging on the Cicciaro girl” — but no, they don’t converge with much force. Instead character subplots wander aimlessly. Pigeons evidently are to be a metaphor for people, but whether people are to be considered citified animals trying to survive on crumbs or rats with wings, as New Yorkers call pigeons, or who knows what, the idea doesn’t fly.

What really hurts is that Hallberg can in brief snippets write quite well. The first couple of chapters are very nice in the way that running the first couple of miles of the marathon are tremendous. But then forward movement diminishes and character urgency wanes.

I knew the end was in sight when I reached a long boring section in a font created from what looks to me like a woman’s handwriting (I remember websites advertising “turn your handwriting into a font!” as though it would be the perfect thing for one’s memoire) and certainly not the handwriting of a business mogul. This came at about page 144 of the 900 plus page book. Here’s a quote from this “handwritten” section in which the mogul is edifying the document’s future readers: “That your father is a man, Son, as you are. this [sic] is the impossibility I ask you to imagine.” Possibly you find, as I did, an authenticity of voice sliding toward the drain. It’s the first sign of the writing that starts to slog and is accompanied by cute tricks (like the “handwritten” letter, and overbearing emphasis on plot threads. As a result, when the drawing teacher is named Bruno Augenblick, in German meaning ‘moment’ or literally Eyes (Augen) look (Blick) I wonder, so now you want to toss in Dickens’ naming style too? And when there’s a mysterious symbol on a tattoo that starts reappearing, I wonder, so now you want to Lot 49 it up? As if there’s not enough going on. Next at bat is the really really boring chapter 22 documenting a therapy session, don’t worry that we just met the therapist, there will be some focus on him later as a good soap opera has oodles of time and never wishes to under stress even the tiniest detail. Hallberg writes, “History as a way of persisting,” and I think this is also his goal, to make every iota of his characters’ histories and the decade of NYC have lasting impressions by their documentation.

I wonder now about the bidding war and $2 million dollar advance to GAH that was the newsy rage for a moment, and I suspect it was in part because some publishers might have smelled possible Pulitzer due to the book taking place in America, as the Pulitzer site says, “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life,” (the novel didn’t win one).

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Quo Vadis, Nero and the burning of Rome, Altemus Edition, 1897. Illustration by M. de Lipman. Wikimedia Commons.

If it wasn’t obvious already, take this: I can’t in good conscience recommend this thick thing for reading.

“Clearly, his chief weakness as a novelist heretofore had been his inability to keep pace with the complexity of real life. To imagine, for example, that the triumph his fugitive hero would feel at the pine forests whooshing past and the taillights of his countrymen strung out jewellike ahead might be tempered by an equally exquisite guilt. Or, on a purely physical level, by discomfort.”

Tee double hee. That last line becomes a comedic thump in this context but I don’t believe it was meant to be. I didn’t find any humor in this novel.

The author toils to make us see the miraculous in the bland but stumbles in the effort because he’s not Proust nor Durrell nor Tolstoy nor Melville. Instead, we see glimpses of an intent to emulate Hart Crane in his work The Bridge, Crane being the Thoreau of the city. But even this connection didn’t quite nail it for me and then…and then I saw that Hallberg said in a piece published The Guardian, October 27, 2015, that one of his key literary influences was Adrian Mole. I’ve read only snippets but can provide a bit of background thanks to my picture typewriter. He is a 13 3/4 year old protagonist of what I believe is a young-adult series by Brit author Sue Townsend. I’d seen the first book before but I went back to Amazon and reread a bit on free preview, and sure, I see how it’s somewhat like Hallbarg’s writing, but that Mole stuff is way too young-adult for my taste. This though solved the buggy literary influence question I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

In the international edition of the The New York Times, Sat-Jun, July 27, 2018, the brilliant writer Javier Marias was asked,

Q. “What moves you most in a work of literature?”

A. “A recognition, when I must stop my reading and say to myself: ‘Yes, this is true, it is just like this.’ I knew but I did not know that until I read it here.”

This is exactly the overriding issue with COF, that it’s the opposite of what Marias identifies. For all its length and referencing events and locations, and there sure is a load of that, COF reads as superficial, generic, a whack of communis et volgatus knowledge slapped between to hard covers. However such knowledge is neither extremely personal in the way it is for Dostoyevsky’s Idiot nor is it owned by any one person. New York City cannot be captured by one book or books, no matter how thick (Sorry Time Life series and Hallberg). I ♥ NY, as the 1977 slogan proclaimed, and because of my love for the city and my living in NYC, over and over I thought, I know that corner, or street, I know that neighborhood and Hallberg got it all wrong, or it doesn’t capture that flavor at all, or those aren’t my memories. I frequently thought, you forgot some of the most important things, the smell of Tad’s Steakhouse, or the grease splotches on the sidewalks, the Sunday Times, the fruit and vegetable markets, the concerts at Central Park, the smell of burned electricity in the subway, or even Black Flag and Raymond Pettibon, things that were a part of life in the Hell’s Kitchen or East Village area. Well, reading became one big sigh about what hadn’t been written.

The reality of my experience was missing whereas contrarily in a book such as Updike’s Rabbit Run, I was never there and yet it’s always my experience too. This is what Marias is speaking about. As a way of seeing my position more clearly, reread the first two pages of Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s a “holey moley this is as real and strong as it gets” moment. COF on the other hand is more like the redo of an old movie. And it is here that we also see Hallberg’s failings. Live from New York 2000 it’s 1975! NYC. This mindset of the 2000’s seeps into his writing of the 1970s all over the place and this in turn detracts from the story, no matter how many topical headlines are mentioned. In turn the characters of COF are much like the SNL cast who play the role of people and while it’s interesting we are kept at a distance.

Here’s another example of trying too hard:

“One of his conquests from uptown had become a dealer and…extended to William a discount that allowed him to cop in family-sized quantities, which he would then take around like Santa Claus visiting the Nice list.”

Oh yeah? I can beat that with the old one liner, no idea who originated it, “My neighborhood was so bad Santa came up from the sewer.” As we progress the similes continue like a buzz, like bouts of chills during the flu. If they were stricken from the text nothing would be lost. On one page there is a shot, presumably a sound of a garbage truck hitting a pothole. Or was it “There was this sound, like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building.” Oh, I forgot. That line’s from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and this book lacks humor.

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Book burning. 2007. Photo by Patrick Correia. Wikimedia Commons.

I said there are a few good pieces of writing and I’ll provide a couple examples, although they sit like non-sequiturs.

On page 243, “He had a sense of similar scenes playing out elsewhere in the city, similar little expatriate conspiracies of good food and good drink while ashes rained down over the Hudson and the Soviets rattled their sabers and scientists in the Midwest moved hands of the doomsday clock one tick closer to midnight. All you needed was a person who could pay for it.”

I give that sentence a lot of credit. It’s really great. Here’s another:

On page 65, “The bench had already disappeared in the first five or ten minutes, its bottle-green slats gone white to match the white drift underneath. Now, as the wind kicked up, tufts of her hood’s lining blew into her mouth, but she hardly noticed them, or the wind, or the snow, or even the fact that Charlie hadn’t shown — because he would show eventually, was the beauty and tragedy of Charlie.” Here we seen one of Hallberg’s real strengths, he has thought about each scene and he can apply a smartly imagined detail to solidify it, like the tufts of lining that blew into her mouth. His eye for such details is his strength.

Now I’ll offer what is bound to be an unpopular view, GAH is quite good and fluid in writing the cop stuff, and this makes me think his voice may really lie within detective novels. They were the parts of the book that seemed like they flowed from him rather than were hammered unwillingly into literature. Chapter 26 and the start of 27 I think prove my hypothesis.

All and all this bookish knife is meant to cut through the heart of the late 70’s in New York City. In his attempt Hallberg throws in the whole kit and caboodle and the kitchen sink, (not to be confused with the non-profit exhibition space The Kitchen founded in 1971 — I didn’t see the place mentioned in the book) and anything else he can find to reference the time period. It all comes off as reactive acceptance as opposed to dissective perception.

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Sign in the Empire State Building. Image by Dietmar Rabich. 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

On page 391 a character says, “This is all a bit Peyton Place for me,” Venus said. “Vámonos, Shoshonna.” And it was for me too. I started reading backwards from the end of the novel. I was right, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, things are wrapped up, it’s still soap opera. So I lo envié empacando (sent it packing). The big book gets relegated to my dismal, dusty shelf of bloated inconsequentialia along with Franzen’s Freedom and Irving’s Until I Find You never to be opened again. Don’t get me wrong, Hallberg can be a fine writer at times but in this he tried way too hard, he put way too much in, he flogged plots, and he ultimately didn’t find his voice or the form to carry it. These are all rookie mistakes but let’s remember it’s his first book. If only all authors could get paid that much for their rookie attempts, the world would be a better place.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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