I aim to read one book of 500+ pages in each month of 2017. My first Doorstopper of the Month is City on Fire, the 2015 debut novel from Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s common knowledge that Hallberg earned a six-figure advance for this 911-page evocation of a revolutionary time in New York City. When it was first published I didn’t think I had the fortitude to tackle it and had in mind to wait for the inevitable miniseries instead, but when I won a copy in a goodie bag from Hungerford Bookshop I decided to go for it. I started the novel just after Christmas and finished it a few days ago, so like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch it took me roughly a month to read because I had many other books on the go at the same time.
Opening on Christmas Eve 1976 and peaking with the July 1977 blackout, the novel brings its diverse cast together through a shooting in Central Park. Insider traders, the aimless second generation of some of the city’s wealthiest aristocrats, anarchist punk rockers, an African-American schoolteacher, a journalist and his Vietnamese neighbor, a fireworks manufacturer, a policeman crippled by childhood polio – the characters fill in the broad canvas of the city, everywhere from Wall Street boardrooms to drug dens.
The real achievement is not how Hallberg draws each character but how he fits them all together. The closest comparison I can make is with one of Dickens’s long novels, say David Copperfield, where, especially as you approach the conclusion, you get surprising meet-ups of figures from different realms of life. The relaxed chronology reaches back to the 1950s and forward to 2003 to give hints of where these people came from and what fate holds for them.
City on Fire might sound like a crime drama – I can see a miniseries working in a manner comparable to The Wire – and the mystery of who shot Samantha Cicciaro does indeed last from about page 80 to page 800-something. But finding out who shot her and why (or why investment bankers would be funding a posse of anarchists, or who pushed a journalist into the river) is something of an anticlimax. The journey is the point, and the city is the real star, even though it’s described with a kind of affectionate disdain in the passages that follow:
The stench of the basement level reached him even here, like hot-dog water mixed with roofing tar and left in an alley to rot
The park on New Year’s Day had been a blasted whiteness, or a series of them, hemmed in by black trees like sheets snagged on barbed wire.
It seemed impossible that he’d chosen to live here, at a latitude where spring was a semantic variation on winter, in a grid whose rigid geometry only a Greek or a builder of prisons could love, in a city that made its own gravy when it rained. Taxis continued to stream toward the tunnel, like the damned toward a Boschian hellmouth. Screaming people staggered past below. Impossible, that he now footed the rent entire, two hundred bucks monthly for the privilege of pressing his cheek to the window and still not being able to see spectacular Midtown views. Impossible, that the cinderblock planter on the fire escape could ever have produced flowers.
Or wasn’t this city really the sum of every little selfishness, every ignorance, every act of laziness and mistrust and unkindness ever committed by anybody who lived there, as well as of everything she personally had loved?
Mercer Goodman, Jenny Nguyen and Richard Groskoph were my three favorite characters, and I might have liked to see more of each of them. I also felt that the book as a whole was quite baggy, and the six Interludes that separate the seven large sections, remarkable as they are (especially an entire fanzine, complete with photographs, comics and handwritten articles), weren’t strictly necessary.
Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Hallberg’s ambition, and on the sentence level the novel is always well wrought and surprising, with especially lovely last lines that are like a benediction. Though it’s mostly set in the 1970s, this never feels dated; in fact, I thought it thoroughly relevant for our time: “even now they’re writing over history, finding ways to tell you what you just saw doesn’t exist. The big, bad anarchic city, people looting, ooga-booga. Better to trust the developers and the cops.”
I won’t pretend that a 900+-page book isn’t a massive undertaking, and I have some trusted bloggers and Goodreads friends who gave up on this after 250 or 450 pages. So I can’t promise you that you’ll think it’s worth the effort, though for me it was. A modern twist on the Dickensian state-of-society novel, it’s one I’d recommend to fans of Jonathan Franzen, Bill Clegg and Jennifer Egan.
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at choosing books that are sure to suit me, but sometimes it’s still a matter of ditching the duds when it becomes clear they’re not working. Here’s the small (digital) pile of abandoned novels I’ve amassed over the last couple of months. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly
Perfectly serviceable historical fiction, but with no spark. I felt like I was just being given a lot of information about the two major time periods (1894 and 1929). Alas, scenes set at a séance, a circus, and an insane asylum are not nearly as exciting as they promise to be. And, as is often the case with these famous wives books – a genre I generally love but can also find oddly disappointing from time to time – the protagonist tries but fails to explain why she finds her husband so fascinating. “His eyes danced. There was a madness to his passion, but he was not insane. There was something real and familiar about him. … Harry was promising her a life of possibility, of magic, and it was unlike anything she had ever imagined for herself.” [Read the first 40%.]
Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Another case of expectations too high and payoff too little. Fictionalized biographies can be among my favorite historical fiction, but the key is that they have to do something that a biography doesn’t do. They have to shape a story that goes beyond the chronology of what happened to whom and when. This novel about contraception activist Margaret Sanger failed to tell me anything I didn’t already know from The Birth of the Pill, a more engaging book all round. If anything this left me more confused about why Sanger consented to marriage and motherhood. These cringe-worthy lines try to explain it: “His [Bill’s] sex upended the world. His love filled the hole my childhood had carved out of me. Maybe that was the reason I married him.” [Read the first 26%.]
Vexation Lullaby by Justin Tussing
This started off very promising, with Pete Silver, a doctor in Rochester, New York, being summoned by ageing rock star Jimmy Cross for a consult. Jimmy knows Pete’s mother from way back and wants to know if he’ll accompany him on the airplane during this comeback tour as his personal physician. However, after that there was a lot of downtime filling in Pete’s backstory and introducing a first-person voice that didn’t feel relevant. This is Arthur Pennyman, a fan who’s seen every Jimmy Cross show and writes them up on his website. I didn’t care for Arthur’s sections and thought they pulled attention away from Pete’s story. That’s a shame, as the plot reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. [Read the first nearly 100 pages.]
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Entirely decent historical fiction with a flavor of Ron Rash or Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), but it felt so slow and aimless. Irenie Lambey is married to a harsh fundamentalist preacher named Brodis. She longs for their son to get a good education and hopes that the appearance of a USDA agent may be the chance, but Brodis cares about the boy’s soul rather than his mind. On night-time walks, Irenie stores up artifacts and memories in a cave – desperately trying to have a life larger than what her husband controls. It could well just be my lack of patience, but the believable dialect and solid characters weren’t quite enough to keep me reading. [Read the first 16%.]
And now for the one I should have stopped reading at about the 25% point. I have an expanded version of this review on Goodreads; click on the title to read more.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver
Shriver does a good line in biting social commentary. Here she aims at Atwood-style near-future speculative fiction and takes as her topic the world economy. I had big problems with this one. Worst is the sheer information overload: tons of economic detail crammed into frequent, wearisome conversations. Instead of making America’s total financial collapse a vague backdrop for her novel, she takes readers through it event by agonizing event. This means the first third or more of the novel feels like prologue, setting the scene. When she finally gets around to the crux of the matter – the entire extended Mandible family descending on Florence’s small New York City house – it feels like too little plot, too late. Everything Shriver imagines for the near future, except perhaps the annoying slang (e.g. “boomerpoop”), is more or less believable. But boy is it tedious in the telling.
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)