Few authors, not even Joan Didion, have emerged on the literary scene as dramatically as did Garth Risk Hallberg in 2015.
In October, the author, a writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College, delivered a 900-plus-page book, “City on Fire,” that had already generated a headline-making advance of $2 million, and predictions (yes, again) that someone had been able to produce the Great American Novel.
Weeks before the publication date, Mr. Hallberg, who recently turned 37, was profiled in New York Magazine, Interview, The Guardian and Vogue (where he posed moodily in an Ami Alexandre Mattiussi coat and a Comme des Garçons blazer and was called the author of “the most anticipated novel of the year”). Film and television rights were snapped up by Scott Rudin.
And then the book came out.
Many of the reviews were respectful, even strongly positive, calling the book “a singular achievement” (Entertainment Weekly) and “an uncommon pleasure” (USA Today). In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that “City on Fire” was “a novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power — a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.”
But others were mixed or even dismissive, with many in the literary community emailing each other (with perhaps a little too much glee) a link to Christian Lorentzen’s harsh review on the New York Magazine site.
“‘City on Fire’ is overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking,” Mr. Lorentzen wrote, adding that the readers would certainly pause at some point in the narrative to ask themselves several questions: “Why is the novel set in 1977? What do the tribulations of the hypercapitalist Hamilton-Sweeneys have to do with punk music? And why on earth is the novel so long?”
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.”
Knopf, the book’s publisher, professes to be unconcerned that “City on Fire” hasn’t turned out to be the blockbuster it paid $2 million for, with an executive there telling The Journal, “This is a book we expect people will be reading in 20 years.”
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