In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity, the has-been writer Charlie Blenheim spirals into an alcoholic haze while he attempts “to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.” The dark comedy of Charlie’s writer’s block reflects something of the mania the literary world has over big novels. Recently, this has been evidenced by the buzz around Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900-page debut novel, City on Fire, although the book has been primarily anticipated for the most American of reasons: its price tag. Still, the $2 million advance Knopf reportedly paid Hallberg says something encouraging about the perceived value of ambitious literary works in the age of ubiquitous screens and perpetual distraction.
Divided into seven books, each followed by an “Interlude” consisting of replicas of various mediums such as a letter, the draft of a New Yorker-style profile, a psychiatric questionnaire, and a punk rock ’zine, the physical layout of City on Fire announces its ambitions to go beyond what is allowed by the standard layout of the novel. Opening in the last weeks of 1976, the novel jumps between various characters and scenes in New York City. Mercer Goodman and his boyfriend William Hamilton-Sweeney III, a dispossessed heir of a massive fortune and former lead of the punk rock band Ex Post Facto, drag a Christmas tree into their apartment. Weeks later, the seventeen-year-old Charlie Weisbarger, anxious, asthmatic, and hopelessly in love with his best friend Samantha, or Sam, prepares to go to an Ex Post Facto show with her. At the show, Sam ditches Charlie in hopes of finding Keith Lamplighter, who has recently separated from his wife Regan (sister of William) after she discovered he was having an affair with Sam. These strands that are introduced as apparently disparate narrative threads are quickly woven together as Mercer, after running into Regan at a party, finds Sam lying in the snow, shot and barely alive.
Literary, dense with details and asides, the language is often masterful. The paragraphs move in and out of the characters’ conscious lives, producing fractured portraits of their past and present desires. Hallberg infuses these pages with a vibrant idiom. There is a “spavined volume of Proust,” a “mesozoic half stick of butter,” and when a girl moves close to Charlie, “his crotch bestirred.” Extravagant metaphors, such as, “You came to feel that he was everywhere and nowhere, like a Deist’s conception of God,” are casually brought forth. While such writing flirts with sounding preposterous, it manages to achieve a surprising and invigorating style.
Unfortunately, such linguistic vibrancy is not sustained. One of the great frustrations of the novel is that the idiosyncratic energy infused throughout the first 150 pages or so recedes into very well-written, albeit conventional, prose. The strength of the first section primarily works to set the stage for what becomes a bewildering array of disappointments that overwhelm the rest of the novel.
The connections between a handful of rather lonely New Yorkers come to revolve around the question of who shot Sam. The mystery grows into a conspiracy. More is revealed about Sam’s involvement with the Post Human Phalanx, or PHP, a punk rock, home bomb-making cult whose tattooed leader is well read in Nietzsche and preaches the overturning of society. Connected to the PHP is Amory Gould, a major powerbroker who has enlisted the cult to raze sections of the city he plans to acquire for development. With his educated, mannered speech, white hair, and the several suggestions that he is a supernatural incarnation of evil, Gould feels like a clumsy attempt to recast the Judge from Blood Meridian with Play-Doh. In short, Gould is a flat plot device hacked up and crumpled into a character.
The conspiracy that comes to dominate the novel is surprisingly banal, accented by strained impressions of Fight Club and The Crying of Lot 49. Even if judged on the level of conventional entertainment, it fails. There is no tension and only a minimally interesting amount of character development in what becomes an unnecessary plot line that nonetheless dominates the novel for hundreds of pages. Short chapters skip from scene to scene and virtually always end with contrived cliffhangers. This leads to a run across town that’s a formulaic resolution involving an unlikely pair who enlists the help of a gruff cop who does what’s right.
Given stronger characters, such a baggy plot could easily be forgiven. However, in Hallberg’s imaginatively restricted world, there is no such relief. A palpable irony of the novel is that for all the extensive backstory given to the characters, for all the details of their lives, they are only superficially distinct. There are plenty of words, but no blood. All are cut from the same self-aware, cheerless, well-educated cloth. They remind me of what Flaubert rightfully said of the characters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: “They talk very well, but all alike.”
The novel culminates on the night of July 13-14, 1977, when the city’s outdated electrical grid breaks down, plunging New York into darkness, resulting in violence, looting, and massive property damage. There is some exquisite writing in this final section. The narrative takes up fragments of events, of emotions and yearnings that vanish into the darkness. People connect in ways that transcend their physical bounds. This is the spiritual impetus of a novel that is largely concerned with loneliness and isolation. In what is, quite literally, the city’s darkest hour, almost every character finds the connection they may or may not have been consciously searching for, and begin to heal.
The horse pill we are meant to swallow is that every character comes out of this a better person. We are blasted by moral pontificating, bludgeoned by an insistence that people can change, that hope springs eternal, morning rises out of darkness, and so forth. And this is not a momentary transformation, a trick of the night. Based on the evidence given in the book, they apparently stay as good people; the change is long lasting.
The night of the blackout is Hallberg’s attempt to give his novel a visionary stature. Like many contemporary American writers, Hallberg lacks the capacity to confront tragedy that is needed to make his vision viable. City on Fire presents troubled people in bad situations, only to suffocate the complexity of reality with edifying clichés. It is what Melvin Jules Bukiet aptly dubbed “Wonder Bread fiction,” the kind of novel that might fill you up, but has no nutrients. With its flat characters, simplification of evil, and a vision it is unable to lift past the realm of marketable, feel-good emotions, City on Fire is ultimately an escapist novel, and a rather poor one at that.
Peter Marshall is a writer who currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.