Grating Expectations: Garth Risk Hallberg’s ‘City on Fire’ and the Limits of Literary Ambition

In the case of the season’s much-discussed literary blockbuster, Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, the smoke isn’t clearing, which is to say that early reviews are mixed. But if there is one thing all profilers and critics agree on it’s that the novel bears the requisite marks of literary ambition. For Frank Rich, writing at the New York Times Book Review, Hallberg’s “precocious” novel is not “as good as it is ambitious.” Elsewhere at the Times, in a more positive review, Michiko Kakutani admits that the novel is “overstuffed” but nonetheless admires its “head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power.” In an interview with Hallberg at BuzzFeed, Kevin Nguyen is understandably cautious when he notes that City on Fire is an “ambitious and confident novel” that manages to ground the “universality of aspirations, expectations, and loneliness” in a “specific time and place.” Finally, in what is so far the sanest review of the novel, Christian Lorentzen of New York Magazine notes its “retreat at crucial moments from realism to Disneyland logic” and its lapses into the pseudo-violent sentimentality of the contemporary fairy tale, but he at least allows Hallberg his “unmistakable literary ambitions”: to write an epic that is simultaneously pop and cool.

“Ambition is a loaded word,” writes Boris Kachka in a profile of Hallberg. Is it? I can think of few words that mean less in isolation. Ambition, I think, is an unloaded word, a gun without bullets. Or at least it’s a vanishing mediator, a concept that means almost nothing once you weigh a novel’s accomplishments against the promises of its time. Even when a novelist explains that he wants to write like Balzac or Kafka, you have to ask: what about the prevailing moment made the novelist choose Balzac as a target?

For the record, Hallberg’s goal in writing City on Fire, he explains to Kachka, “was to get the book somewhere that is going to allow me to be DeLillo 40 years from now.” I’ll confess that I have no idea what this means, but I do sense in Hallberg a weird mixture of deference and false humility. To begin with, DeLillo in his early years was a workhorse of the short novel (he wrote six in his first eight years), and City on Fire, which is meant in many ways to resemble Underworld, is over 900 pages long. So it seems that Hallberg is taking a rather lengthy shortcut with his second book. Not to mention the glaring reality that Don DeLillo is still alive, something that would signal, above all else, Hallberg’s cultural permeability. It has been a long time since we’ve had an American author of such a big novel about the past be so porous with regard to the present.

But as I’ve written before, presentness is increasingly one of the preconditions of the properly “ambitious” work of contemporary art. (For better or worse, being both “present” and “of the present” is what makes something “contemporary.”) In the case of writers as (supposedly) disparate as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tao Lin, this amounts to a presentist prose style, one that obliterates temporal barriers by way of automation (etymologically: self-action). Elsewhere, in the case of writers like Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, this presentism is achieved by creating temporal feedback loops of the self, overlaps or bootstrap paradoxes — to use the parlance of time travel — that simultaneously produce and reproduce the self (of the author) in the reader’s present. It’s no coincidence, then, that Hallberg’s City on Fire has been called a “virtual reality machine”: virtual reality machines do nothing, really, except create a wholly artificial present within the present.

More than anything else, though, I think Hallberg’s novel — alongside an increasing number of novels pitched as “ambitious” by contemporary publishing — is governed by two irrepressible logics of the present: austerity and television. Television is, after all, another machine that creates a present within the present. And austerity is literally the governing logic of our present moment.

To begin with, City on Fire, with its stock period details and cast of cosmopolitan grotesques (that too neatly cuts across class and identity), more closely resembles a “tightly plotted” 1970s periodization of High Maintenance than any Don DeLillo novel. The TV quality of the book also explains why critics, who have fought about whether Hallberg should be compared to Tom Wolfe, can agree that the novel is “Dickensian.” In the language of contemporary culture, a “Dickensian” novel is simply one that resembles our most awarded TV dramas (like The Wire). I’m told, as of writing this, that there is even a BBC series on the way titled Dickensian.

Second, and especially in odd ways that I don’t have space to enumerate in a short piece, Hallberg’s novel resembles another “ambitious” book of 2015: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Both are works, I would argue, that thematize ambition, albeit in opposite directions; Hallberg’s book is filled with beautiful young souls with grand ambitions, whereas Franzen’s fiction is deliberately laced with characters who are scaling back their ambitions. Yet both are governed in this respect by the logic of austerity; both are working with and against the current political and economic moment, when we are all being asked to revise our expectations about the future.

And this is part of the failure of both novels, part of the reason they both end up mimicking television (not that great novels can’t borrow from other forms). In Franzen’s Dickensian austerity novel, the characters are mostly bailed out by dumb coincidence (not to mention the novel’s own outsized ambitions); in Hallberg’s they are bailed out by distraction: we’re made to believe the novel takes place in the austerity of 1970s, when it actually takes place in the austerity of the present. And it’s a present where ambition in narrative art is increasingly valued for its own sake, an austerity-ridden moment wherein our own lives have grown so small that any ambition, however unloaded, is ambition enough.