I bought City On Fire because I wanted to love it. I was not worried by its hype. No. I figured this guy has a fabulous agent, and he's written and ambitious, intricate, sprawling work of historical fiction--kind of like what I've done with the novel I am currently querying.
I also bought it because I want to query his agent.
And there is much that I love about this novel, which I still have not finished (so unlike me--I can read a book this fat in a weekend.)
Midway through, there's a huge hunk that is just from three female points of view--a teenager who we meet via her journal/newspaper (the first black section of the novel) a Vietnamese immigrant/American young woman named Jenny, and Regan, the wealthy daughter of the Hamilton-Sweeneys.
But here's the deal: Everybody who we hear from in this novel so far has the same super-educated voice, and middle-class concerns. There are characters that we meet who are middle class, strung out, dish-washers, fish-scalers, but we never do hear from them. All we hear from are existentialist folk who mostly run, screaming, from their feelings, happily getting drunk, stoned, taking 'ludes, using heroin, (snorted, injected; between the toes, in the arm) oh, and practicing bulimia. And they all sound the same when they're talking about it. Jenny Nyugen, Regan, Sam Cicciaro, our sleeping beauty, William Hamilton-Sweeney, the red-headed Charley and even the newspaper reporter who gives us a brief few moments of actual plot, they all sound exactly the same, and exactly like our narrator. Supposedly, this is the whole city of New York in 1976-77. It makes me think of Woody Allen's claustrophobic, white New York; it makes me long for Let The Great World Spin, which plunged boldly inside the head of an aging black hooker, a Guatemalan caregiver, a Park Avenue housewife and her Judge husband (Jews who think like Jews.)
I I had some problems with McCann's version of the hooker, but at least he let her be a major actor in the story.
City On Fire does have Jenny, who seems more of a character sketch than a person, and the lovely, decent Mercer Goodman who we barely see. And red-headed Charley knows so little about his Jewish religion--though he has attended Hebrew school and had a beloved, observant, Holocaust survivor grandfather, that his philosophical musings are the same nihilist twists all the rest spend hours (it seems) pursuing. From my perspective, as a writer and an actor (which I am) I'm really struggling.
I applaud Risk Hallberg's ambition. I share it. I've probably messed up any chance at his agent because I'm posting this here. I'm more than halfway through here, I'm going to keep going, but it's not with joy and excitement.
And this is not snark, it's not wanting this book to not succeed. (something I've blogged about before, something that human's tend to do.) I want it to soar, and then my book can follow. For now, I keep plugging, keep hoping I can get swept away, and can finally rest in someone else's story inside this particular book.