City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

I liked this book a lot while I was reading it, but then I started to write about it a month later, and mostly came up with mean things to say. Sometimes that happens.

It’s a New York City novel, and it’s trying to be that big, that sprawling, about that many different things and people. It kind of suceeds at achieving that scale — there are that many elements, but a lot of them feel hollow. A lot of characters felt cliched, but intriguing enough? A lot of different characters were cliches I generally enjoy. Too much of the story was given over to straight white men who weren’t very interesting, which is the saddest problem to have. It’s set in 1977, and before that, and a little bit after that. It’s all over the place, almost exclusively in the past.

I was excited by its interest in New York punk, but frustrated because this is something I actually know things about, and it feels off — not wrong necessarily, but untrue. I read Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of New York Punk when I was in seventh grade, and it was incredibly formative for what I like thinking about, and seeing that world described but fictionalized was frustrating. I understand wanting to mess around in that sandbox, it’s fascinating, but this is not how I would have done it at all.

There are interesting female characters that are never fully given their due. They’re fleshed out, and I like them a lot, but ultimately their arcs seem more in service of male characters which is bad. The big event that holds everything together is the shooting of a young woman, and then through the rest of the novel she’s idolized and mourned, serving as a prop for the plot, and a reason for Men to have emotions, which is not cool or interesting.

There are lots of threads going on, and they do manage to tie together, but not in a way that makes me care. With so many characters some of them arrive at more satisfying ends than others, but that’s to be expected.

The more I think of the ending the more of a let down it feels like. It ends with the 1977 blackout, and I can tell what he’s trying to do, and I can see how this could have been a huge grand finale. But it sort of isn’t? Parts of it felt predictable, and other threads felt underserved. And then the aftermath doesn’t get dealt with all that well. It felt messy.

The writing itself is interesting and enjoyable. I especially enjoy the original source documents embedded as breaks in the novel. School records, zines, reporting, and emails, do a more interesting job of telling the story than the actual book. These inclusions ground the world, adding context and perspective. If only the novel parts were as strong.

The decision to not be chronological never feels wholly justified, and the changes in pace — sometimes spending lots of pages on a day, while other times breezing through whole years, didn’t work for me. It didn’t get confused exactly — I didn’t have a hard time following the story — but it felt unnecessary. It didn’t feel blend in natural, it made me question it, and I found that it felt forced. It was a weird flourish, not something that added to the story.

In a way my frustration is a sign of the novel’s quality — it’s good enough enough that I want it to be even better. it has something going on that I enjoyed a lot, and wish that other parts worked as well. It’s an interesting book.
I’m torn about what to say? I really enjoyed it while I was reading it, but the further away I get, and the more I try to write about it the more frustrating it feels. There’s definitely something there, and if any of the elements are your jam then it’s worth checking out, but it has issues.


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