“Hallberg writes like he's not sure anyone will ever give him a second chance. There are places where you can taste his panic and his need to use every word he knows now. And there should've been an editor around to tell him that keeping something in your back pocket for later ain't always the worst idea in the world — but there's also something to be said for a guy that just leaves it all on the table.”
“To cut unceremoniously to the chase, yes, as you might suspect, or fear, Garth Risk Hallberg’s new, much promoted, nine-hundred-and-forty-four-page novel, City on Fire, is about four hundred pages too long. Hallberg is a gifted writer, so the pages go by pleasurably. His book is never flaccid or flat, but it does not leave you wishing for more. He tried to squeeze too much juice out of the apple.”
“The question of whether City on Fire is good does not lend itself to a glib answer. But no one can say it isn’t ambitious, and exceptionally so for a first novel. Hallberg devotes more than 900 pages to his own effort to recreate the face of an entire city in all its confounding complexity, complete with collagelike inserts replicating a coffee-stained manuscript by one character and the dense East Village zines of another. His talent is as conspicuous as the book’s heft.”
Raising more questions than it answers, Hallberg’s novel spins with its heroes rather gloriously in this dialectic of dark and light, among complexities from which the soothing simplicity of its final lines could not be further.
“I was right there with Risk Hallberg for about the first 150 pages but interest began to wane soon after. When the second Book flashes back 15 years to fill in gaps and provide strangely belabored back stories, any narrative momentum is stopped dead in its tracks. And while the writing is often good, it’s very rarely great.”
“[Hallberg] needs that length to mimic the lavishness of his milieu, and to capture the ways in which each of his characters exists 'at the convergence of a thousand thousand stories.' Lucky for Hallberg that we’re living in an age that’s receptive to maximalist fiction…”
Hallberg has tried mightily and he nearly pulls it off. Judged strictly as a product of effort and determination, the book is an absolute marvel. A Russian nesting-doll analogy would not quite serve, as there are so many separate dolls all with their own nests, and all intersecting at various orders of magnitude.
“City on Fire often reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, an interesting book of obvious talent marred by pedestrian writing and half-baked characters. Here, the plot is more ambitious, and the style more richly lyrical, but the reader is left with a similar feeling of reading a messy early draft.”
“City on Fire has the scope of a classic Russian novel. I spent a week compulsively reading it, and since finishing, I’ve had a hard time picking up another book. Granted, it does go on (903 pages), and the finale is, one might say, Zen like. If there were a fictional equivalent of the Slow Food movement, City on Fire would be its standard bearer.”
“There is a lot of terrific writing in City on Fire, a lot of vivid action, of ideas. But in the end, it doesn't, can't, quite support our faith or its author's intention, can't quite carry the weight of all its words.”