Charles Dickens knew it. So did Victor Hugo, Zadie Smith RI ’03, and dozens of other novelists: cities, in their ever-changing, richly layered diversity, are the perfect inspiration for novels. And perhaps novels, in turn, can help us better understand cities—and ourselves.
That was one of many insights to emerge from “Organized Complexity: The Novel and the City,” a talk given by the writer Garth Risk Hallberg as part of the Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture Series. Lizabeth Cohen, an American historian and the Radcliffe Institute dean, introduced Hallberg to a Knafel Center audience while providing some context for the beleaguered New York of the 1970s, in which Hallberg’s bestselling first novel, City on Fire (Knopf, 2015) is set. That New York—where thousands of municipal workers had lost their jobs, reducing services from police and fire to sanitation and public schools—teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Arson and crime skyrocketed. “The cuts brought two priorities into direct conflict with each other, namely fiscal responsibility and social responsibility,” Cohen noted. In the past, labor, business, and government officials had assumed the two would always go hand in hand; the crisis found them in opposition. The world had changed.
Hallberg grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, a town of 18,000 people in the 1980s. But he was drawn to New York as a young child, escaping into books such as E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. “It wasn’t the property of any one writer,” Hallberg said. “It didn’t belong to anyone, and so it belonged to everyone.” Also, it represented a fantasyland of adventure and possibility beyond Greenville’s conservatism—yet unlike C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, New York was real. You could go there.
As a teenager, Hallberg, feeling even more stifled, discovered twin obsessions: poetry and punk rock. “Both seemed to represent alternative ways of being in the world,” he said, describing a deep dive into Dante, Whitman, and Tennyson, along with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, and Joey Ramone. That New York scene was a far cry from E.B. White’s “gleaming postwar edifice,” Hallberg commented. “It was entirely edge, entirely frontier. All the tensions were right on the surface. I was fascinated even then by the fact that this incredible outpouring of creative expression that gave us much of what was culturally interesting in the 1990s came out of a few blocks of downtown Manhattan. How could fear and freedom, creation and destruction, live so closely together?”
The layering of class, race, age, and sex was just as captivating when Hallberg made it to New York, and it continued to hold a deep fascination even as circumstances took him to St. Louis for college and then to Maryland with his soon-to-be wife. “It seemed like the city would wait,” he said. Then came 9/11. As in the 1970s, if for very different reasons, the world had changed. “Mixed in with all the grief and trauma was a different kind of grief,” said Hallberg, “as if the city itself had been snuffed out.”
He continued to visit New York in those post–9/11 days, taking in its people and streets and thinking about what made the city unique. Just before moving there for good, Hallberg had a moment of inspiration: He realized that everything he had been seeing and feeling and wondering about “wanted to express itself through this enormous story of 1975, 1976, and 1977—this other time when the city was broken and vulnerable and hovering on the edge.”
Twelve years later, he published City on Fire. More than 900 pages long, it appeared on numerous “best book” lists for 2015 and has been translated into 17 languages. Encompassing a wide cast of characters across various strata of society, the book orbits around an unsolved shooting in Central Park, its web of connections culminating in the New York City blackout of July 13, 1977. (Born in 1978, Hallberg drew on sources including Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved with Gold [Random House, 1979] and Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005] to create the authentic sense of time and place so widely noted in reviews.)
It was in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961), however, that Hallberg found the underpinning principles for his novel (or perhaps any successful novel). First, “It must be concrete,” he said, citing the importance of detail, point of view, and context. Cities “are a form of reasoning in concrete.”
Second, it must be diverse. “It’s dangerous to treat diversity as a decorative item . . . it’s a necessity,” Hallberg said. “The more I could get scenes and characters and sentences to be unlike each other, the more the novel moved and had resilience.” The novel must also connect, with a “patterning, a sense of unifying commonality animating the whole,” he said. And finally, like any city, it must change. “I think when we talk about a novel having a sense of life, we’re really talking about it having a sense of modulation, of dynamism, of change, or we wouldn’t read past page 1.” he said.
Jacobs’s vision, Hallberg continued, was one of organized complexity, in which every part somehow relates to another; isolating and engineering a city’s various elements into a static ideal ultimately creates more limitations than benefits. The same is true of the novel, he added—perhaps that’s why it’s been such a perfect tool for analyzing cities and getting at their meaning. A novel and a city’s shared principles of concreteness, diversity, connection, and change are interrelated; altering one affects the others. For that reason, a closed, fixed society is as unlikely (and unlivable) as a novel—or a life—in which every element is individually honed and controlled to perfection. “There can be no possibility without risk, no creation without destruction, and no getting through the whole thing without setbacks, reversals, hope, pain,” Hallberg concluded.
Reflections on writing, novels, and cities—New York in particular—continued during a conversation between Hallberg and Claire Messud RI ’05, moderated by Cohen. A senior lecturer on fiction at Harvard, Messud is the author of The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006), also set in New York. “What did New York mean to you in writing these novels?” Cohen asked.
“For me, place is always a character,” said Messud. “New York—being so diverse, concrete, and enormous—is going to be a huge character.” She then wondered how Hallberg chose it as the setting for his novel. New York, he answered, could be seen as the city of the 20th century, when people of different sexualities, ethnic backgrounds, and classes mixed together. The “sense of an experiment” drew him in.
A question regarding City on Fire’s length led Hallberg to reflect on the fact that when he sat down to write his novel, there was much talk of bookstores going bankrupt. Publishers seemed not far behind, and most people apparently couldn’t sustain attention for longer than a tweet. “But I did notice that everyone was on their 53rd episode of The Sopranos, which is a remarkable feat of attention,” he said. “By the time I got out of my garret with my incredibly unwieldly manuscript, people were going to bookstores.”
“Change had been happening,” Messud commented. The conversation continued, with audience questions that brought up what Jane Jacobs called “catastrophic money” and the role of research in creating authentic fiction. But that word, change, was a fitting echo for much of what had come before.
Julia Hanna is an associate editor at the HBS Alumni Bulletin.