In the run-up to my telephone interview with Garth Risk Hallberg —him in New York, me in London—I had wondered at what point it would be appropriate to bring up just how long his début novel City on Fire is. At 944 pages it is a brick of a book,andIcan’tseeany way to avoid talking about it.
Luckily for me, Hallberg brings it up first, when discussing the day in 2003 that he first had the idea for the novel: “I was so scared about the size of it and height of it and scope of it, and I thought: ‘I don’t have the capacity to write this book.’” Four years later he found the capacity, and what he has written is a highly readable portrait of New York in the 1970s.
Split into seven sections, the novel follows a big cast of characters, their lives connected by a shooting in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1976, as they navigate their way through one of the busiest cities in the world, towards a climax set during the electricity blackout that affected the city on 13th July 1977.
The idea for City on Fire came to Hallberg “fully formed” in 2003 as he travelled on a bus from Washington to New York, the city he did most of his “fantasy living” in as a teenager and where he now resides with his family. As the bus drove through New Jersey, Hallberg caught sight of the New York skyline—the first time he had seen the city at that particular angle since 2001, and the absence of the Twin Towers hit him. A song referencing the blackout of 1977 started playing on Hallberg’s iPod at that moment.
“I started to think about New York of the 1970s, which is a dangerous, collapsing, wildly free but also unsafe place after the blackout, and I thought this is the moment we are living through, this is the conversation we’re living through now two years after the terrorist attacks,” he says.
“The book is set in the 1970s— everything is falling apart and the climax is the blackout, someone’s been shot and there’s a banker with a hole in his balance sheet, and there are all these characters. It was going to be a sustained investigation into what would be lost if we were to give up on this crazy project of the city.”
Instead of searching for a flat, Hallberg sat in Union Square and wrote a page of City on Fire...and it was at that moment that he realised he wasn’t ready to write the book. But when he returned to it 2007, he found that the characters he had first invented were still in his mind. City on Fire is character-led. Among its cast are Charlie, a disaffected teenager finding hope in the punk scene of downtown New York; Mercer, a young, gay, black teacher trying to fit in in the big city; William, an artist, drug addict and reluctant heir to the Hamilton-Sweeney fortune; a group of musicians and outcasts who are so sick of the city that they want to burn it to the ground—and more.
The characters in City on Fire are all so different, and at times it’s difficult to imagine how Hallberg can bring more than a few of them together by the end of the book, but he does.
“I knew that I didn’t want to write the kind of book about the city that did not make any attempt to mimic the city and its nature,” he says. “The fact that there would be all of these people and all these stories and all of these connections and missed connections, and comings and goings and randomness—all of that was a way of talking about some of what is magical about a city and some of what is worth preserving against forces that have no interest in variety and chaos.”
As a teenager Hallberg was a fan of punk music and avant garde poetry, so he was something of an outcast growing up in a small town in North Carolina. That aspect of Hallberg’s life has clearly found its way into the book through Charlie, but the author says that “all the characters are me”. He adds: “In some ways I came pretty early on to see them as different moods—for better and for worse—of myself, and to understand that as being essential to character making. I always start with character . . . I don’t think very naturally in plot but I’ll get this strong sense that a certain scene has to happen.”
City on Fire is, whatever Hallberg says, full of plot, with the thread of the shooting running through the whole book. Inevitably, we circle back to discussing the length of the novel. “I had this intuition early on . . . I knew it was going to be really long and I thought it would be more or less unpublishable,” he says. “It just wasn’t something people were doing”. In 2007, his thinking was: “This is liberating because no one’s ever going to publish anything so idiosyncratic and large—I have permission to swing as freely as I want to.”
But to his surprise the book was picked up, and it is being published in a year featuring plenty of other “big books”. Hallberg says of the trend: “I think there is a real thing going on where writers are feeling more liberated to write with a big canvas because of a demonstrable, continued appetite for long-form storytelling,” he says.
“I find it heartening that readers are still excited about diving into a world.”
Photo credit: Mark Vessey