CITY ON FIRE, by Garth Risk Hallberg, Alfred A. Knopf New York, 2015, 913+ pages
Not to go all Julie Andrews on you, but, I’m not sure what I find more egregiously excessive; this book’s $2 million advance or its 913 pages. Forgive me my crankiness, despite the hours I spend at the gym, toting this ten-pound-book around for the past week has left me with aching arms. And eyes. And ego.
Full disclosure: I was told by a writer I very much respect that to have any prayer of publishing my currently un-agented novel, I ought to cut it by a third because in its current shape, it is close to 600 pages.
This is Sebastian talking now, in blue italics. I’ve added after he finished – he doesn’t know and he will be pissed but, tough luck, that. Charlie is my alter-ego and I often let him babble– but we were also told by another writer, who happens to be a professor of Literature at a prestigious college, do NOT cut a word, rather, find an agent who recognizes it for its beauty.
So, I marvel–
As in – he is furiously pissed off.
— at a first novel of such length being published.
Having heard about its big-dollar advance and seen multiple articles in The New York Times, People, Entertainment Weekly, New York, The New Yorker, and what felt like every other blogsite, news outlet and magazine on the planet, I had intended to let this one pass.
As in – he was having a fit of petulance because Garth was getting so much attention and Charlie can barely get a fucking Twitter like and as for two million dollars? Uhm, Charlie qualifies for welfare, can’t afford his monthly probiotics, and has pretty much given up on capitalism, accepting the fact his final years will be spent in an appliance box on a grate or under a bridge somewhere – which sort of makes him a troll – but that’s a tale for another day, so – back to his thinly think-piecey-veiled PETULANCE of “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll jump on that bandwagon. NyahNyahNyah-NyahNyah.”
But, then I got a library card. So, as long as I didn’t have to pay for it, why not give it a try? I promised I would get through at least one hundred pages before throwing it across the room. Metaphorically. I would never throw a book. Well, I would never throw a book I didn’t own. Well, unless my life was in danger. Or, maybe, the life of someone I loved. Or, a dog. I would definitely throw a book to save a dog. But, not a cat. I don’t really like cats.
He’s stalling. He liked the first hundred pages. Maybe even the first two hundred. But somewhere along three hundred, maybe four hundred — who the fuck remembers by 913 — it started to get to be a bit much. Numbingly much. It hurts too much. Just. Fucking. Too. Much. Now, trust me, Charlie is a person for whom “too much” is often not enough. Charlie is a fellow for whom too much is a muchness of which he very much – some would and have said TOO much — approves. Yes, too much is a muchness the muchness of which Charlie much embraces. BUT 913 pages of too muchness – he just couldn’t. I mean, Charlie is no stranger to solipsism – in fact, it’s almost a religion – but this book was like, WHOA, a level of fetishistic, self-absorbed, over-indulgence akin to being a twelve-year-old boy having just learned to wank and so one keeps on and on and on, fondling and pulling and rubbing until one’s wangle is chafed unto rawness and getting to the gush becomes too painful — the thrill, as it were, after too much muchness of wanking — is gone.
But, I’m not here to discuss felines.
And I’m not here to discuss wanking, although, honestly, why not?
This is a book blog. And this, City on Fire, this was a book. This book showed some good, hard work. This was a book with its heart in the right place.
HA! Last night on Twitter, one of the people Charlie follows said; “There is nothing more dispiriting than having to say about a show its heart was in the right place.” And Charlie shared how he used to teach his acting students to say about shows they did not care for, “Now that was a show.” And another Twitter friend suggested the line, “Wow, that was some good, hard work.” And I say again, HA!
Look, I know book reviews frequently synopsize plot but I’m not that kind of reviewer — if you want a synopsis, click on the cover-photo at the top and go to the Knopf site — rather, I am someone who reads because I enjoy good writing. Reading is my passion, my solace, my comfort. In reading I find friends and purpose and ways to see and make sense of the world. City on Fire, for me — and this is JUST ME — did not give me comfort, new ways of seeing, nor did it make loads of sense for me.
When I taught acting and was a director, the foundation of my method had to do with change and choice. I told my students (and casts) every word you say, every cross you make, every moment on stage is about the choices you are making, the thoughts you are thinking, and the frame of reference and experience informing those thoughts and choices. Every second of being alive informs and changes all the time before that second and the time after that second, so there is always an arc happening. You are a new you in every moment, so if I tell you to enter stage right, cross up left, say your line, exit down left, you had better be a new person at each of those junctures — I want to see how the circumstances and confluences of thought and action and past and contemplation of the future and being in the present change you, make you who you are. I need to see the arc happening.
When he was teaching acting and too, when directing, he was known for ridiculously LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG lecturing and hectoring and group therapy-ing, which many actors/students found terribly frustrating, but they learned to just nod along as if they were following what it was he was saying.
Which is a long — and not particularly adequate, I know — way of saying: When I am reading I want to experience arcs. I want to live with the characters and be surprised by them and feel them growing, being vital, being human. I am not a fan of books where I feel as if the characters are symbols whose fates have been shaped by an omniscient author for who they serve as metaphor and plot-points, charted out before they were born in an MFA taught formula meant to make the Lit-world say, “Ah, yes! What technique!” Blah.
Near the end of the book, page 867, Mr. Hallberg writes:
In his head, the book kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it. But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life? 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. A 24-million page book, when it had taken Mercer four months to draft his 40 pages — wildly imperfect ones! At this rate, it would take him 2.4 million months to finish. 2,500 lifetimes, all consumed by writing. Or the lifetimes of 2,500 writers. That was probably — 2,500 — as many good writers as had ever existed, from Homer on. And clearly, he was no Homer. Was not even an Erica Jong. He had been writing for all the wrong reasons, for the future, for The Paris Review, for the cover of Time (the peak of cultural attainment, so far as the other Goodmans were concerned) — for anything but the freedom he’d once discovered in ink and paper.
There are many fine points in that paragraph. And there are many fine paragraphs in this book. But once its point is made, must it be made again? And again? And yet again in a slightly different way? And then, one more time, just to be sure we have gotten his point?
Which is the trouble with the book. WE GET IT. But by the time we have gotten it again and again and again and again – well, if only this paragraph had come at page 350, or, even, page 500, rather than 867. Because as long as it took you to WRITE it, it’s also rather a long slog to read it — and I don’t think it needed to be so long, so solipsistic, and so damn heavy. Mr. Hallberg has obviously thought about the time involved in writing and reading, so, one might expect him to be a bit more respectful of our time, out here, we readers in the dark. Give an old man a break, buddy.
I do marvel at the fantastic job done by the copyeditor(s?) — this manuscript was clean of the sorts of errors in punctuation and usage of which I am seeing a troubling amount of late in books. Now, if only someone had convinced Mr. Hallberg to cut it by 30%, I think I would have liked it 50% more.
I feel a bit mean. This review is less friendly than I like to be. So, again I say, I am jealous. I am currently worried a very great deal about my finances and where I am going to end up living — as in; Will I have income enough to have a place to live? So, the $2 million dollar advance for the 913 pages, yes, I’m bitter. I could live my simple little life off of that amount forever. And, too, when I think of all the other writers I love and follow who write books I consider to be of great genius and intellectual and spiritual heft, and how they struggle to eke out a living and get covered and known — well, I’m bitter for them too.
So, I think I ought to go now, before I get any uglier. I’m already feeling guilty. Farewell, friends — and despite this negativity, Love and Light to you.
He’s a delicate soul, is Charlie. He is now, actually, in pain about posting this. But I’m going to force him. He’s barely followed, a limited readership, Mr. Hallberg will never see this, and Charlie doesn’t wish him any ill will. In fact, he’s also envious because Mr. Hallberg’s author photo is so lovely. Not only can he write, not only did he get an agent and great deal, but he’s also good looking, loved, a dad, and – fuckall – I bet he has a dog too.