Reviews > Published on September 22nd, 2015

Bookshots: 'Not on Fire, but Burning' by Greg Hrbek

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Not on Fire, but Burning

Who wrote it?

In his studious avoidance of any elucidation, Hrbek ultimately fails to answer the only question that matters: So what?

Greg Hrbek, winner of the James Jones First Novel Award.

Plot in a Box:

Something, maybe a plane or a bomb, or even a UFO, crashes into San Francisco and causes a huge nuclear explosion. The book then jumps forward many years to follow various characters living in the aftermath—America is split into territories, weed is legal, and the Muslims (who were of course blamed for the explosion even though a cause was never determined) are forcibly relocated onto the old Indian reservations.

Invent a new title for this book:

Nothing Really Matters

Read this if you liked:

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori

Meet the books lead(s):

Many characters are focused on, but the two most interesting ones are Dorian and Karim. Dorian is a young white boy who struggles against his irrational hatred to try and be a good person, while Karim is a refugee orphan adopted from the Muslim reservations who is starting to have doubts about the righteousness of his mission as a suicide bomber.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

Dorian and Karim are both about twelve, and I’m not familiar enough with actors in that age range to make that call, but they would have to be talented little guys to pull it off without coming across as cliches.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

Honestly, other than San Francisco being a radiated wasteland and weed being so legal you can buy a pack of “greens” at the corner store, this racist, divided country full of fear-mongering assholes pushing hatred down everyone’s throat isn’t really all that different from the post-9/11 world we live in today.

What was your favorite sentence?

What we have presented here is a fraction of a whole, no more representative of the total narrative than a single cell is representative of the living body of a person, just as every person described herein is, in like manner, a fraction of a whole of greater selves.

—Ironically, this line sums up most of the problems with this book.

The Verdict:

Well, if I hadn’t just finished reading After the Saucers Landed, this would have been my pick for Most Tedious Book of the Year. Not on Fire, but Burning is an incoherent slog through underdeveloped concepts and indulgent, masturbatory prose. It’s even more disappointing than Saucers, because this book actually has a few well-drawn characters and shards of an interesting story embedded within it.

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel seems to be written to intentionally obfuscate the narrative at every turn. It constantly shifts points of view without rhyme, reason or warning, often in the middle of a paragraph. And not just between different characters—it also randomly shifts between first, second and third-person, so you are constantly struggling to figure who is talking about what. Hrbek throws a whole bunch of stuff at the wall—there are elements of sci-fi, thrillers, mystery, and coming of age stories—but he never commits to any of them, even when they stick. The story of Dorian and Karim is the most complete and interesting piece of the novel, but its fragments are hidden between tons of overwrought verbiage that is not only irrelevant, but a chore to read.

For example, every time a character has to make an important decision we are given a detailed anatomical explanation of how the brain’s signals are transmitted to each part of the character’s body. To what end, I can’t even guess. There are frequent digressions into discussions of alternate universes that end up going nowhere more profound than simple “what ifs”, mysteries that are hinted at but never solved, some absolutely cringe-worthy passages attempting to describe a writer’s moments of inspiration, and in the end, the book refuses to even attempt a conclusion. In his studious avoidance of any elucidation, Hrbek ultimately fails to answer the only question that matters: So what?

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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