Spring & Mulberry Streets, NYC 1976

Spring Street at Mulberry, New York City, 1976

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg

What do Frank Rich, Andy Cohen and my cousin Peter have in common? They were all disappointed in City on Fire, a 911-page first novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that follows the interwoven stories of several subsets of New Yorkers between 1976 and 1977. Typically, the individual and collective opinions of these three wise men could probably sway me toward or away from a particular book, but in this case the premise was too intriguing for me not to give it a go myself. (I’m a sucker for epic, 20th century historical fiction, particularly from the century’s 2nd half. Lately it’s been all about The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire when I prefer to watch, rather than read, late 20th century historical fiction.)

Back to the book. Up until page 623, I was in. And then (semi-spoiler alert), the story abruptly jumps ahead 30 years. The jump is temporary, but I found that the technique pretty much killed all the tension the author had been building up to that point. And as I continued to read, I began to realize that of the many seeds planted earlier in the book, very few were actually going to bloom into anything significant. Yet amid my own chagrin, I understood why all three of my wise men had read the whole book before deciding they were disappointed – by the time you get to page 623, you’re finishing the damn thing.

Unfortunately, stringing along an audience for that long breeds a level of antipathy not found among those who put something aside after 50 pages. (Or, say, five episodes. You former LOSTies out there know what I’m talking about.)

In the past, I’ve found it funny when people complain about the length of certain books, regardless of their interest in the content. Recently, I observed my father cautiously survey a book purchase he’d made, wary of its heft. His comment was something along the lines of, “I hope it’s not too long, I don’t want to be saddled with this thing all spring.” Keep in mind that this was not a gift; it was a book he’d proactively gone out and purchased. It’s a strange logic to me: wouldn’t one rather read one good, long book rather than two or three mediocre short books in the same time span?

In considering the disappointment around City of Fire (my own included), I’ve begun to recognize the role risk plays in one’s reading choices. When someone starts a lengthy book, they feel they’re making an investment of their precious reading time, so they get edgy about the possibility of the investment not paying off. And the more we invest, the more we want in return. All that good work an author did early on to gain our buy in feels like that much more of a loss when he can’t pay it off over the course of many pages. Disappointment has a price. His readers are annoyed and resentful. Their early enjoyment is forgotten and in its place, their frustration is multiplied. They decide the book in its entirety is no good. To torture the idea one step further, you could say it feels like a literary pyramid scheme (minus the callous intentions).

Call me a gambler, call me a reckless risk taker, I’m willing to keep rolling the dice on big books. But if time really is money (or at the very least a valuable commodity in its own right), I can appreciate why others may not want to spend theirs in the same way.


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