A Book as Big as Life


Laura Tanenbaum Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire,in Dissent:

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel about New York in the 1970s, is a big and elaborately constructed book with 944 pages, dozens of characters, seven sections, six interludes, a prologue, and a postscript. Each section opens with images and quotations, drawn from works ranging from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Hallberg seems inspired by the democratic scope of these projects, and by the belief that everyone’s story, everyone’s point of view, should matter.

The novel’s plot centers around the murder of Samantha, a young NYU student hanging around the city’s punk scene. Around this story, Hallberg weaves together a vast range of characters who come into contact with Samantha, and another set who come into contact with them. He moves around in time, filling in social and psychological background on even seemingly peripheral characters. As in the great social novels of the nineteenth century, which are clearly on Hallberg’s mind, we move through the social and class strata of the city. The Hamilton-Sweeneys, one of the city’s richest families, serve as a node for these connections. There’s the family patriarch, William, who is under threat of indictment, and his nefarious stepbrother, Amory Gould, pulling the strings. The son, also William, breaks ties with the family, enters the art world, struggles with addiction, and joins a band in Samantha’s circle. Regan struggles to be the good daughter who stays with the business and with motherhood and domesticity; her husband Keith eventually takes up with Samantha. There’s Charlie, the suburban kid who falls hard for Samantha; Nicky Chaos, the punk guru; and the cop and journalist who investigate her murder. At first, we don’t know who killed Samantha, but we know we are moving towards the events of July 17, 1977, when the city was famously plunged into darkness. Everyone has a story and everyone’s story gets told with sympathy, with the exception of Amory, whose villainy serves as a foil for the novel’s humane liberalism.

“But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life?” asks Mercer Goodman, the teacher, would-be novelist, and sometime-lover of William. “Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living (because this was how much Mercer could read in an hour, before the marijuana)—which was like 800 pages a day. Times 365 equaled roughly 280,000 pages each year: call it 3 million per decade, or 24 million in an average human lifespan.” Hallberg does not give us a book as big as, at least, this life. But it is nonetheless big.

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