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Book Review

Novels To Get You In The Empire State Of Mind


Book reviewer Sarah Bagby looks at a pair of hefty novels.

Two monumental books set in New York City are among my favorites of the year. “City on Fire” is Garth Risk Hallberg’s tour-de-force set in the late 1970s. It had me in its grip from start to finish—all 911 pages. “A Little Life,” Hanya Yanagihara’s 720-page novel held me captive over a long, but not lost, weekend.

In “City on Fire” the cacophony of New York resounds during three epic events-- New Year's Eve 1975; the Bicentennial July 4th celebration; and a blackout, during which the lives of artists, punk rockers, journalists, trust fund drifters, bikers, and families, collide. This ambitious novel is a murder mystery, an exploration of burgeoning sexuality and identity, a meditation on family loyalty and mores, and a peripatetic trek through the countercultural fringes of the late 1970s.

“A Little Life” examines the interior lives of four men living in contemporary New York City. The novel follows college friends over a number of decades: a painter, an architect, a lawyer and an actor. The richly imagined intimate spaces each inhabit during various periods of their lives mirror the darkness and light of the human heart. Yanagihara explores the need for friendship and its limitations; the limits in rescuing others; the dichotomy of self-loathing and extreme competency; and the limits of overcoming childhood abuse.

Even as each of these books could have used an editor's pen, I hung on every word. I envy all readers who have yet to discover these very accomplished novels.