A Book as Big as Life

A Book as Big as Life

City on Fire—Garth Risk Hallberg’s massive and elaborately constructed novel about New York in the 1970s—offers the contours of the great social novel. But it struggles to reveal the ways in which power actually works.

New York City subway passengers, 1970 (National Archives and Records Administration)

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
Knopf, 2015, 944 pp.


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. City on Fire is, first and foremost, about New York; but it has greater aspirations. It is not a novel about a single life, or even about a set of interconnected lives, but a novel about recent history, about power and money, about social change. This ambition has impressed many; critics hungry for big, socially and politically relevant novels have brought out their best DeLillo and Pynchon comparisons. Profilers have marveled that a writer not alive during the 1970s could have created such a comprehensive portrait of the period. Yet it is precisely along these lines that the book feels insufficient, even slight. Seeing everyone’s story as part of a vivid mosaic is a humane and ambitious project. But to narrate history, to show how a set of events and actors colluded in creating the world we live in, is another matter.

Take those in power who are at the center of the novel: the Hamilton-Sweeneys, we are told, are one of the city’s richest families. Early in City on Fire, we read a letter from the family patriarch, William Hamilton-Sweeney, who is attempting to bring his prodigal son into line. Recalling when his father attempted to reign in his own youthful questioning, William writes: “I forced myself to say what I’d long been thinking: But I’m not like you. At which he put his hands on his trouser-thighs and leaned forward. He had always been something of a ghost to me, my father, an echo of the muffled explosion that had been his father. . . . Bill, he said mildly. Do you think I’m like me?” It’s a compelling suggestion of how the rich are not like you and me, or for that matter, like many of the other characters in the novel. They are pulling the strings; they create versions of themselves that perform in the world.

Yet it’s this very aura of mystery that makes the family an ineffective vehicle for creating a social portrait of the city. While there are numerous plot lines about corporate malfeasance and real estate deals, the descriptions of how the business works are vague, and the treatment of money is mystified in a way that conflicts with the novel’s largely realistic style. The family patriarch may or may not go to jail, but we never have a sense that the order of things will change much. The majority of the family’s story is given over to conflicts about sexuality, abortion, eating disorders, rape, and drug use. It’s a compelling family drama, but it doesn’t tell the story of power the novel wants it to. We get the contours of the great social novel, but Hallberg struggles to reveal the ways in which power works in the world. The pervasive sense of the period that the powers that be were genuinely afraid their time had passed is never fully evoked. It is odd to fault such a self-consciously big novel for what is missing, but it is striking how much this one family is called upon to represent the powerful. Politicians, or, for that matter, politics, are almost nowhere to be seen; punks almost single-handedly stand in for the political and social upheavals of the time; the New York of the novel is basically Manhattan, with a bit of Long Island thrown in.

 When it comes to the “other” New York, especially the punk scene, Hallberg’s writing sings with specificity and life. There’s a particularly enjoyable interlude in which we are given the text of a punk zine attributed to the doomed Samantha. With snippets of album and show reviews, a travel guide to the East Village, and rambling diary entries, it captures what serious novels rarely do: the way a young person thinks and speaks, rather than how others perceive her. Another compelling interlude creates the magazine profile of Samantha’s father, who runs a family fireworks business. The profile, written by the journalist who gets drawn to the case, is complete with a defense of fireworks as an art form “so neglected in the outside world that no one can even agree on a name for it.” This is the novel at its best: it attentively recreates the voices of both a young person moving through the city and of the influential writers of the period itself, each sounding distinct from the other rather than straining to be part of the whole.

As Louis Menand pointed out in his New Yorker review of the novel, it is fantasy that New Yorkers of different classes and social groups intersect with the frequency they do in the novel. Readers drawn to Hallberg’s scope might be willing to forgive the improbable number of connections drawn between uptown and downtown: Samantha takes up with Keith, frustrated husband of the equally frustrated Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, while Regan’s brother William, long estranged from the family, takes a break from his painting for a stint in the band. Meanwhile, the villain of uptown, Amory Gould, shady step-uncle to the Hamilton-Sweeney children, conspires with the band’s front-man, Nicky Chaos, to torch the properties Amory will profit from.

We might take this alliance as a statement about the criminal origins of so many fortunes or the ways subcultures get co-opted. But the novel’s intricate back-and-forth, its woven-together or parallel scenes eventually lead us somewhere else: to the sense that, underneath it all, nothing much was at stake in the political and social conflicts of the time. Punks might play at revolution, but when the chips are down and crisis hits, the order that will be restored is inevitable, if not wholly just. At the climax of the blackout, Mercer finds himself caught between a group of rioters and a counter-group shouting “TAKE IT BACK!”: “Mercer is not so intoxicated as not to notice the ambiguity around just who is supposed to do the taking, and from whom. But maybe this is a virtue, because by the fifth or sixth iteration, mirabile dictu, the opposing crowds have merged. It’s hard in the darkness to tell anymore the boho hobos from the petit-bourgeoisie—or to know which camp he might fall into himself. It’s as if the two halves are aligned at last, and oriented, as most hive-minds are, toward restoration.” It is striking, at the very least, for us to witness Mercer, the novel’s main African-American character, cast here in the role of reconciler, shrugging off the possibility that the city is the site of real struggle, with real lives at stake. The awkward double negative (“not so intoxicated as not to notice the ambiguity”)—gestures towards the winners and losers of the changing city only to shrug them away.

The scene distills the novel’s humane liberalism: the vision or the hope for peaceful reconciliation between the era’s radicals and the coming conservative tide. As a literary vision, liberalism falters because rather than reconciling dramatic conflict, it suggests there never really was a conflict. Politically, it falters because, in 2015, we know what this restoration has come to look like. The manufacturing jobs lost in the seventies never came back. Neither did the punk scene. Desperately needed aid came only when attached to austerity and cuts to services. Progress toward integration and racial equality were rolled back as a direct result of shifts in policy. Mass incarceration and ever more aggressive policing were touted as a way to make the city safe for the middle class, while devastating the neighborhoods it targeted. Today, the shadow of the “bad old days” is deployed as a threat against any challenge to police abuse, despite the absence of any evidence of a rise in crime.

It may not be the novelist’s job—even the historical novelist’s—to write with all of this in mind, or to be concerned with the slow slog of policy. Hallberg is less interested in politics per se than he is in creating a mood of uncertainty and possibility. He does this effectively, and without the crippling nostalgia and mythologizing that plagued Jonathan Lethem’s popular treatment of the period in The Fortress of Solitude. But despite all the chaos, Hallberg’s elaborate web of connections renders the results static. Some people survive and others don’t. Everyone is connected. Samantha’s murder is solved. The city is dangerous; it is violent, but it will recover.

Historical novels about the distant past have a distinct challenge: to create a world readers will be able to enter while still acknowledging how it is different from our own. For novels about the recent past, the challenges are different but no less formidable: to make the familiar unfamiliar, to present the story as if the ending is unknown, to make us think about ways things might have been different.

This is why City on Fire comes most alive in the interludes between sections that recreate documents “written” by various characters, from Samantha’s zine and William Hamilton-Sweeney’s letter to medical reports and the New Yorker–style profile one character is writing about another. Here the mechanics of the novel’s structure and narration break down, and we witness the voices of history as they unfold: messy, contradictory, and up for grabs.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Narrative, Open Letters Monthly, and other publications.

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