Imagine this: you’re standing in the middle of a busy street. People are passing you by, you’re surrounded by strangers that mind their own business and run to wherever they’re late to. Now, what if at least eight of these people that walk past were connected to you – like friends of friends, acquaintances you’ve met once while eating out, the father of the client you’ve spoken to today? You’ve got a mystery to solve, and the answer is never near if you don’t work together. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg uses this premise to speak in descriptive prose and to create a net of events that pull strangers together to solve a mystery when a power cut leaves New York short of light.
A New Year no. 1976 starts with a bang for a circle of people scattered around New York. A NYU photography student fascinated with the punk scene, Samantha Cicciaro, is shot in the park without any witnesses and transported to the hospital, where she is kept in a coma. This event ties a knot between a few people who seemingly have very little in common. There’s Charlie, a timid friend of Sam who gets captivated by the anarchist charm of punk; Regan, a PR executive working for her father who’s the richest man in the city; her brother William, defiant painter and rock musician; Mercer, a literature teacher and Will’s boyfriend; Richard, a journalist who finds his ultimate case to solve; Jerry, a policeman pushed to retirement; Jenny, a women with hippie ideals working in art gallery; Keith, a trader and Regan’s partner. All of them get “a voice” of their own at some point – but there are also interjections which look like a punk magazine, notes of a journalist, or therapy documentation who allow others to speak indirectly. Some of the characters that are important for the story aren’t given that privilege: we get to know them through somebody else’s spectacles, and so we begin to trust them, or connect much less.
Planning this puzzle board, so intricate and with connections that need to make sense for the story to be captivating, must have been a tough journey – so it doesn’t surprise that Hallberg worked on this book for seven years. It’s ambitious to introduce nine protagonists and a handful of secondary characters to the reader, and even more so make the plot intelligible afterwards. It’s also difficult to keep it short and sweet if you want to pay attention to every one of them – and differentiate between their personalities. Hallberg tries to portray the society of the late 70s, capture the soul of the city, so he introduces the characters from the various backgrounds. Therefore, we’re introduced to evil bankers, teens from suburbs, art dealers, punk musicians and uptown wives. Although the narration mixes several different points of view, the tone of voice is not quite varied across any of them – all of them speak very similar, polished prose, filled with almost constant self-reflection and a lot of doubt. The overload of people packed between the lines of this book makes some of the characters utterly forgettable, but that contributes to the description of the city life in a way – they weren’t meant to be anything else than a part of a grey mass of humans in a society that surrounds the main heroes.
The notion of mixing the perspectives and travelling back and forth in time while the events are unfolding is definitely attention-grabbing. Each character is a jigsaw piece that belongs to their own social circle and leads their own life. Trying to portray them all with their quirks, habits, dreams, desires and passions is quite a serious task, which has been partially accomplished. Here, it’s possible because of all those little events in their lives which make the reader get to know the story heroes more. Looking at a broader picture, it looks like a plot in a play in an ancient Greek theatre: there’s that inevitable fate that steers events out of control, closes and opens paths, and pulls the strings of the puppet people who don’t have any realistic control over what’s to come.
Countless characters form a social circle without having any idea that they’re connected to each other by a mutual acquaintance. It has to be admitted – it’s pretty exciting to figure out who is related to whom, and what their motive could possibly be. The cinematic descriptions paint a vivid, broad landscape – but they do get tiring at times. In some passages, things are over-explained, and it feels like the author has sacrificed the clarity and pace for the sake of stringing poetic phrases together.
City on Fire boasts some rich, colourful prose, and a few good concepts that, in fact, are really difficult to execute. The brave idea of creating a net of characters who have no clue about each other’s existence but contribute to the main storyline has been executed more or less effectively, even if the book would do without some of the heavy descriptions. That is why this novel should be savoured slowly, like a TV series (sorry, binge-watchers!) – it won’t wear you out as much, and you’ll long to get back to the group of strangers that are connected so closely.