Thursday, February 11, 2016

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
Knopf, 2015
944 pages
source: ebook borrowed from library

Audiobook
narrated by Rebecca Lowman (and others)
Random House Audio, 2015
37 hours and 53 minutes
source: purchased with audible credit

Goodreads summary:

New York City, 1976. Meet Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city's great fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown's punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter, Richard, and his idealistic neighbor, Jenny, - and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park on New Year's Eve.

The mystery, as it reverberates through families, friendships, and the corridors of power, will open up even the loneliest-seeming corners of the crowded city. And when the blackout of July 13, 1977, plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives with be changed forever.

City on Fire  is an unforgettable novel about love and betrayal and forgiveness, about art and truth and rock 'n' roll, about what people need from each other in order to live... and about what makes the living worth doing in the first place.

My thoughts:

You might remember City on Fire for the astronomical advance its author received last year... the nearly two million dollars raised even more eyebrows going to a debut novelist. Or you might remember the wonder that Knopf would publish a 950 page novel in this day and age. Those factors, combined with a 1970s NYC setting, made the novel seem irresistible. Could it really be worth that advance?  I had to read it myself and find out.

And I did. It took nearly a month to get through all 944 pages. I opted for the ebook version since I doubted my ability to support such a massive tome for extended periods of time, and soon added audio to the mix as well. (The production is excellent.)

I found myself completely immersed in the New York City of the late 1970s... and most of that experience was truly remarkable. City of Fire  offers an intricate, complex story, with a wide array of well-developed characters. There is history, a mystery, philosophy, psychology, and it all culminates with the great blackout of 1977. I've even seen this novel compared to Bleak House.

In addition, the writing is excellent... at times, even brilliant. And Hallberg makes it seem so effortless. I marveled at his vocabulary. Where did he ever come across some of those words? I've never appreciated the ebook dictionary function so much.

The physical book is creative and attractive, too. A variety of fonts and formats, especially in the interlude sections, makes for a visually appealing product.

I was enthralled for most of the journey and remember thinking this was easily a 4-star book.

And then...

The 'resolution' began. It continued for 300 pages, maybe more, and... NOTHING. What? Did the author simply get tired of writing? Was 944 pages all he had in him? After investing so much reading time, I felt entitled to an ending. This was completely unsatisfying. To be clear, I have no problem with open-ended or ambiguous endings, but this just seemed lazy. I felt cheated.

And the length? I don't think this story really warrants 944 pages. A good editing would have cut three hundred pages, probably more. Reading about the 70s punk scene got pretty boring after a while... though to be honest, it didn't interest me much back then either.

So...

Despite all the positives (writing, plot, characters), the lack of an ending after reading almost one thousand pages was too much of a disappointment for me to overcome.

I'm very curious about this novel's sales figures. Was Knopf able to recoup their 2 million dollar advance? Would they cut the length if given an opportunity for a redo? Or ask the author to write an ending?

With all of that said, I eagerly await Hallberg's second novel. And I will read it... provided it comes in under five hundred pages.

Bottom line:
Given the length and lack of an ending, I cannot recommend City on Fire.
Throw it on the pile of overhyped debut novels.

My rating:

40 comments:

  1. Oh, I used to love books that went on and on for hundreds of pages (like Gone with the Wind), but nowadays, I prefer my books to be 400 pages or less. The exception warrants more, perhaps.

    Yes, 1976, being bicentennial year, was pretty amazing...and my daughter was born that year, lol.

    But I'm with you...that era gets boring pretty quickly.

    Thanks for sharing, and I think I'll pass on this one.

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    Replies
    1. Laurel-Rain Snow - I was a huge fan of sprawling family sagas back in the day, too, but prefer shorter books these days. I still make exceptions for classics (how I love Trollope!), but don't see myself picking up another modern chunkster any time soon.

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  2. To answer your question about sales, The New York Times had an article in December. An excerpt:

    Sales have been disappointing, with Nielsen BookScan estimating that “City on Fire” has sold slightly in excess of 30,000 copies in hardcover since publication. (Knopf, the publisher, says that total sales, including e-books, have been around 80,000.) Not bad numbers, to be sure, but as The Wall Street Journal reported in November, based on its calculations, the novel “would need to sell about 75,000 hardcovers, 75,000 paperbacks and 150,000 e-books to break even.”

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    Replies
    1. Interesting... I suspected as much.
      Thanks!

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    2. Thank you for sharing this - I'd been wondering about sales numbers ever since I read it!

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  3. Oh no! I was so excited to read another book about NYC and the 70's, and was eager to expand my chunktser reading beyond the King. Then I read "The 'resolution' began. It continued for 300 pages, maybe more, and... NOTHING." So disappointing. I feel very sad about that, and can only imagine how you feel after investing so much time in the book.

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    Replies
    1. Vicki - It was such a disappointment! I was really enjoying this one, but the lack of a proper ending really ruined it :(

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  4. Ah, great to hear I can skip this one! :--)

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    1. Jill - Go ahead and skip it, but be ready to add his next book to your list. Such a talented writer!

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  5. I first saw your review on Goodreads, so commented there, but the sales numbers the anonymous commenter shared were definitely more detailed than the ones I'd found and shared in my Goodreads comment. Glad to know some more details - I'd been dying to find out something about that!

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    1. Sarah - I wonder if those sales numbers cost anyone a job... what a disappointment after such a large investment. There is no doubt that Hallberg can write. I'm still thinking about this characters... wish he would have provided some sort of resolution :(

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  6. I had heard of this recently and was curious because of the advance. The time period for whatever reason really doesn't grab me and the length had me definitely hesitant. It sounds like it could have used a bit better editing for the money! I think I'll pass on this one but I'll keep an eye out for the author in the future.

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    Replies
    1. Katherine - There is an excellent novel in there somewhere. A good editing might have allowed us to read it :(

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  7. Umm....I'm thinking no. I'd rather go back and reread a book of that length that was written in the 1970's - like a Susan Howatch book or Barbara Taylor Bradford or Pilcher's Coming Home. LOL

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    1. Kay - You know, I'm pretty close to pulling out some of those old novels... especially after your recent post about Rosamunde Pilcher!

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  8. Very interested in your review. I've picked this book up and put it down more than once in Waterstones. I love American contemporary literature and if something is touted as a great American novel I'm a sucker for it and yet the length of this does put me off and I can see you had some reservations. I may wait for the paperback!

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    Replies
    1. Nicola - This is such a well-written novel and it saddens me that I cannot recommend it because of the lack of an ending. It's been over a week and I'm still thinking about the characters. Hallberg could take any one of them and write another entire novel. This man has such talent and, if you are okay with the lack of resolution, it is quite a reading experience.

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  9. So many people have said exactly what you have said...I went crazy looking up words.,

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    1. Patty - That was kind of fun for me. Where did her ever learn those words???

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  10. There aren't many stories that need to be that long. I think I'll skip this one.

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    1. Kathy - And this is definitely one that could have been a lot shorter...

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  11. I don't mind long books, but the setting of this one didn't really appeal to me, and nothing I read about it since has changed my mind.

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    1. Lisa - I kept thinking about this book in relation to Trollope. He either gave us some sort of resolution or pushed us on to the next book in the series... so much more satisfying.

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  12. I was on board until I heard about the ending. Nope. If I'm going to invest that much time, I want a super satisfying ending of some sort.

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    1. Beth F - Exactly! If he'd wrapped this up (even just a little), I would be shoving it into the hands of all my friends. This could have been a classic... sigh.

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  13. This book, or at least the first part, sounds so very appealing. That era in New York City, including the Punk Scene, especially so.

    It is too bad that the book fizzled out. That sounds so disappointing.

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    1. Brian Joseph - It really was, and Hallberg is such a talented writer! I just wish some editor had handed the whole thing back to him and told him to finish the book :(

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  14. I was SO excited about this book before it came out - I love chunksters and the time period is so appealing to me. Then I started seeing reviews similar to yours (so many of them mention the ending!) and decided to push it back. Such a bummer for a book that could have been great if edited!

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    1. Shannon - And that makes it even more of a disappointment... this could have been such a great novel. Why didn't someone insist he finish it???

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  15. I can't imagine 37 hours+ in audio!! I think the longest audio I've listened to was just over 18 hours. Wow! I've seen a lot of division about this book but am happy someone loved it, especially after the HUGE advance the author received for it.

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    1. Kathy - Now that you mention it, this must be the longest audiobook I've experienced... even though it was part reading and part listening. If the lack of an ending didn't bother me so much, I would be saying that I loved it, too. Rebecca Lowman did such a great job with the narration and having other narrators for the various interludes was brilliant.

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  16. I made it to about page 200-250 as I recall. Glad I didn't go any further.

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    1. Diane - Our reactions were a little different since I was still loving City on Fire around page 200. I'm glad you gave up though. If you weren't feeling it by page 250, you certainly wouldn't be at page 900 ;-)

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  17. Oh wow, that is one chunkster of a book! I have a hard time reading really long books especially if they seem to fizzle towards the end. Certainly it sounds interesting but I don't know if I could make it through :)

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    1. Iliana - This would have been an amazing book if the author ended it properly...

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  18. I generally enjoy open-ended books, even if I will complain about them a little. But I absolutely need an ending for 500+ page books. Even if they have tiny little bows. It is exhausting to decide my own ending after reading that many pages.

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    1. Athira - I usually don't mind open-ended books either, but if I'm going to read 900 plus pages, I want an ending!

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  19. Well it sounds like you liked the beginning a lot, but the ending or the last 300 pages were pretty painful (or sounded like it). I think you deserve blogger of the year award for conquering the colossal book & audio. 37 hours, ouch! I don't care for chunksters too much, sadly

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    1. Susan - It's been a couple of weeks now and I'm still thinking about this book and its characters. I'm glad I read it and think Hallberg could have selected any character and written an entire novel. Even after 950 pages, I still want to know more about them.

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  20. Whatever in the world made them think this guy was work $2 million up front?? Big names, proven names don't see that kind of advance. And with the less than stellar reviews and size of the book, I can't see them recouping that.

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