Hot and freaking ginormous. City on Fire, the much-ballyhooed novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, is 944-pages long. A thumping doorstop. It contains 94 chapters, plus a prologue and a postscript. And it’s set to hit shelves (fingers crossed they’re buttressed) on October 13th.
Comparisons are being made to Bonfire of the Vanities and Dickens and David Foster Wallace. Books and authors aren’t judged on their own merits, you see, they’re labeled and categorized. Always the next le Carré or Hemingway, always the new something. And City on Fire is the new Bonfire of the Vanities since the setting is wicked, imploding New York; the new Dickens for the characters and social conditions; the next David Foster Wallace based on weight.
Incredibly, the hype might be even bigger than the book. The publishing world is betting this goes beyond blockbusting and veers into a revolutionary, industry-changing event. Heh, it better. Knopf paid $2 million for the privilege of publishing it. Scott Rudin optioned the film rights for six figures.
In the bidding war, seven offers came in over $1 million before Knopf won by doubling that. As a result, expectations are impossibly high, but reviews have been mixed, trending toward lukewarm. The most common criticism is length; the book is simply too long and by hundreds of pages. In my opinion, they could’ve done without the literary contrivances, the mock-ups of documents and a 25-page magazine piece — they always look so cheesy and affected.
The narrative itself shifts between characters and there are a bunch of those. Backstories, points of view, and flash forwards abound, as well. There’s a shooting in Central Park, the blackout, a bombing in midtown, financial shenanigans, infidelity, looting, punk rockers, a scheming, blue-blooded family. In other words, it’s an ambitious, sprawling tale. Perhaps just too ambitious and too sprawling.
Everyone seems to agree, though, the guy’s very talented. So why didn’t they just say that? The rest is irrelevant. Critics, gah. And they complain about long-winded? Just forget the hype and decide whether or not you have the biceps for this. I’m in training, myself.