Failed Utopia: Why City on Fire Is Not the Next Great New York Novel
By Phillip Pantuso
In a 2007 defense of Don DeLillo’s Underworld published in The Quarterly Conversation, the young critic Garth Risk Hallberg argued that in DeLillo’s masterwork, “Here was a major novel that drew equally on the realist legacy–its ironies, historical depth, and strong point of view–and on the absurdism, historical holography, and fragmentation of the postwar fiction of social critique,” in doing so becoming the best book of its age (and one of the few to attempt) to capture “The Great, Sprawling Wreck of It All.” Eight years later, Hallberg himself has attempted something similar with his debut novel, City on Fire, a sprawling, symphonic, HBO-miniseries of a book that drops us into the various and overlapping milieux of the punks, yuppies, financiers, artists, and revolutionaries of 1970s New York. Over 94 chapters, seven interstices, a prologue and a postscript, Hallberg chronicles the Götterdämmerung of the Beame-era social order, culminating with the blackout of July 13, 1977. Only occasionally, while reading it all, do you forget how much work it must have taken.
City on Fire’s bigness has been much-discussed: its length (944 pages), its advance (purportedly $2 million), its hoped-for impact (by the New York literati, anyway) on the future state of the American Novel, its characters (dozens). Its ambition is biggest of all: The task Hallberg has set for himself is no less than to render New York City in all its very-muchness, akin to what Dickens did for London with Bleak House. “Budget cuts and crime and unemployment had brutalized the city, and you could feel on the street this sense of soured anarchy, of failed utopia,” one character recalls, years later. The New York here is of a particular time and place–the gritty and graffitied, bankrupt and burning 70s–but Hallberg’s real subject is the dream of New York, the ideals by which its citizens define the City. Hence the failed utopia. Its characters come from all strata of society, their lives intersecting in the kinds of ways that only happen in novels about New York. (Of a pair of lovers, Hallberg winkingly writes: “What could possibly have yoked these two together, besides the occult power of sex?”)
It’s the City of “fat faces, thin faces, pink faces, brown faces, bearded and naked, hatted and bald, male and female and everything in between.” Similar to Dickens, Thackeray, or David Simon, Hallberg treats society as both the inspiration and canvas for plot. The plot here concerns the New Year’s Eve shooting of 17-year-old Samantha Cicciaro, a “Minerva of the suburbs”-turned-NYU freshman who’s fallen in with a bunch of Alphabet City punks squatting on East Third Street. Their leader is Nicky Chaos, a font of nihilist and insurrectionary slogans, who says things like “We are beyond all that art shit. That Walter Pater shit. We are Post-Humanists. The Post-Humanist Phalanx. We redeem the claim of disorder on the system.” Nicky has lately usurped leadership of the punk band Ex Post Facto, who put out one legendary album before going kaputt in a cloud of drug addictions and ego trips. Their leader was Billy Three-Sticks, a/k/a William Hamilton-Sweeney III, wastrel scion of “those Hamilton-Sweeneys,” one of the City’s preeminent financial families. We meet him as a 33-year-old washout battling a heroin addiction and artistic inertia with regards to painting, his true (artistic) calling. He’s on the rocks with his boyfriend, Mercer Goodman, a refugee from the Georgia hinterlands with a “searing ambition to write the Great American novel.”
William’s nuclear family is also subject to hostile takeover, this coming from Amory Gould, the “demon brother” of Felicia Gould, a wicked stepmother-type who marries into the Hamilton-Sweeneys. William is estranged from the family, but his sister Regan continues in their employ, while behind the scenes, Amory maneuvers for power and forms a secret alliance with Nicky Chaos. Regan moves her two kids to Brooklyn Heights after separating from her husband, Keith Lamplighter, the kind of man who separates life into spheres that would all “explode” should they come into contact. Two of them do: He’s carrying on an affair with Sam, the discovery of which traumatizes his young son Will and leads to his separation from Regan.
There’s also Charlie Weisbarger, an asthmatic Long Islander with “Clamato-red hair,” a crush on Sam, and vestigial do-gooderism; Richard Groskoph, a one-time National Magazine Award finalist with a “weak sense of self” and a propensity for gumshoeing his way into trouble; Detective Pulaski, a seen-it-all policeman nearing retirement; and a cast of stock characters, including gallerists and Hell’s Angels and California transplants.
How are all these characters connected, and what do they have to do with Sam’s shooting? City on Fire cares about that more in theory than in practice. After a tremendous and compelling opening section, the novel delves into a series of flashbacks that illuminate the secrets and sadness of its characters. Except that these sections are leaden and overwrought; they read like character-building exercises you’d do in a creative writing workshop, and sap the book of the momentum it builds in the first hundred pages.
It’s a shame, because Hallberg is a damn fine stylist. His prose is lyrical and lapidary, and he’s a tremendous conjurer, of place and atmosphere if not of human emotionality. He’s clearly done his research, citing sources like The Streets Were Paved with Goldand Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning. But for all its finely detailed world-building, bravura set pieces, and formal ambition, City on Fire is just kind of… bland, somehow. Its City doesn’t feel like New York; it feels like a Rube Goldberg machine. And the characters doesn’t feel like people; instead, they’re like well-chosen representatives from each corner of the infinite-sided city. Hallberg builds them from the outside-in, nailing the signifiers but seldom inhabiting their conscious inner lives. They’re always saying and doing exactly what you’d expect. That’s the problem with having so many characters, and with building your novel around a conceit rather than a character: even with a thousand pages, there’s not enough time to make it feel real.
The would-be antidote to this is free indirect style, which focuses the narrative through the revolving perspective of the characters. Hallberg uses it here, but poorly–he’s too enamored of his own voice. Other than minor and inconsistent variations in the diction, like an actor doing a bad accent, all of the characters notice the same things, follow the same patterns of thought, and speak with the same MFA-level of fluency. There’s nothing weird or unusual about any of them that hasn’t been explicated elsewhere in the book. The details are right, to a degree that you are always noticing them, but the frame is false. Gobs and gobs of detail and observation are dropped on the reader from the cruising altitude of Hallberg’s godlike, cinematic perspective, and it’s all so accurate and predictable and therefore boring and tiresome after a while.
There’s one scene, late in the book, in which a gallery assistant named Jenny goes to find William at his Bronx studio, and stumbles upon the bewildering artistic series he’s working on, Evidence. “She couldn’t tell if it was good, exactly,” Hallberg writes, “but no one could say it wasn’t ambitious.” I felt similarly about Hallberg’s own magnum opus: more impressed by the concept, the ambition, than the execution. It’s easy to see why the book was so breathlessly anticipated: it will make a great movie or miniseries, someday, and Hallberg’s romantic viewpoint of New York is exactly what New Yorkers tell themselves. Describing an image of the City from the top of the Hamilton-Sweeney Building, Mercer Goodman thinks: “The view was godlike, cinematic: the City as he’d dreamed it from his homely hometown seven hundred miles away. Resolving out of the snow, like a picture tuned in on a television…” That dovetails with the origin story Hallberg has given for this novel. Riding a Greyhound into the city for the first time post-9/11, Hallberg sees the skyline sprout into view, only minus those iconic towers. Just then, Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” came on his iPod, a dirge that describes the sense of impending apocalypse in mid-70s New York. “In the song, it seemed to me that the ghosts of these possibilities–of this messy, funky, ruinous, dangerous, alive, passionate, hopeful, meaningful, creative place that was New York in the seventies–had magically transmitted themselves out to all points of the map and sustained generations of teenagers since,” Hallberg told Vogue. “And once again, we were in a conversation about the relative merits of freedom and security, risk and vulnerability. The whole book came to me in the space of that song, like a supernova in my brain.”
It’s impossible not to feel romantic about the city upon moving here, and it’s also a privilege. The privilege is uninterrogated in City on Fire, and the ideal is over-leveraged. The result is a social-realist novel that feels like an uncanny simulacrum. Like we’re in the Matrix. But as far as I can tell, it’s not supposed to feel that way. The book culminates with the blackout, a 120-page climax of chaos and disbelief and interbraiding storylines conducted with awesome power by Hallberg. It’s stunning to read and also completely overdetermined. I was reminded of a scene earlier in the book, when Mercer, overcome at Tompkins Square Park by the whirl and color of life, is reminded of why he moved to New York City to pursue his writerly ambition. Everything he’s noticing, all of the details, are “incidental, all of it, of course, but this was what this city bestowed that novels couldn’t: not what you needed in order to live, but what made the living worth doing in the first place.”