City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg*****

cityonfireLuminous, epic, and brilliantly scribed, City on Fire is the buzz book of the year. I would be hard pressed to find a story of greater genius published this century. Those that love literature have to read this book. It will be available to the public for purchase October 13.

I received my copy early from Knopf Doubleday Publishers and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. In doing so, I feel as if I struck oil.

The story, some 992 pages of it, is a complex story, and like an onion, the reader can decide how many layers of interpretation they wish to uncover. What the reader cannot do, however, is skim, or make the story make sense without reading it in its entirety. It is the thing that makes this story great that makes it complicated, and so those that lack the stamina for a book this length will probably not find it fulfilling. A college-ready literacy level is required in order to understand it.

First, the reader will want to know who committed the act of violence that sets so many things into motion, and how the planned escalation by her friends will unfold. But ultimately, the story is a much broader one, and its genius is in the way each character, even its most peripheral ones, is developed, usually within the same space that the setting is described, and how both of these things drive the plot forward rather than slowing it down. This reviewer came away with hundreds of flagged pages, eloquent quotes, and fifty notes to myself, most of which say exactly that; in fact, eventually I was too engrossed in the story to write a full note anymore, and began using “ch dev, setting” as a shorthand that meant, look! He’s done it again! And by the 80 percent mark, the author had so consistently developed so many characters that I began to ask myself who had not yet been included. Those I watched for were also developed by the conclusion.

In looking for a writer’s purpose, it’s easy to choose one part or another of a storyline and home in on that, and it’s particularly dangerous when the writer touches upon one’s own particular fond subject, or one’s own pet peeve.

In her memoir, Amy Tan remarks upon having stumbled upon a set of Cliff Notes for her own first novel, and discovering that she had intended as metaphor or message passages that actually, she had included for the sake of telling a good story. It’s a cautionary reminder here. If we want to know the author’s purpose and we aren’t sure, we should probably just ask him.

Yet the emphasis on the city, and the development of the characters, seems to point to one thing above all else: “I see you”. For though the author includes the diverse races, genders, ethnicities, and classes that make up a great cosmopolitan city, the story isn’t really about race, and it isn’t really about being gay or straight, and it isn’t really about the entitlement that comes of great wealth and capitalism unfettered, or anarchy and cataclysmic change, or cops, or the disabled, or addiction, or any of the story’s other facets. Rather, each is a foil to show the common humanity of all.

And at a time such as this one, with our social fabric strained and our political ideas polarized, it isn’t such a bad thing, I think, to have an author come forward and say, in a way far more compelling than anyone else has managed to do for decades, that we are all of us just people, after all. All of us will grow old or sick or both, and eventually die. All of us will grieve. Most of us will be injured, and we will forgive it to the extent that we are able. And if any of that sounds trite, it is only my own failing in this review rather than the author’s work, which is breathtaking in its scope and mesmerizing in its capacity to weave so many threads and perspectives into one intricate, flawless story.
If you read one great book this year, let this be it.

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