Cape wins UK auction for City on Fire

Jonathan Cape has acquired Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, the debut novel which sold for close to $2m in the US earlier this month.
 
The Random House imprint is thought to have paid £200,000 for the 900-page novel, buying it from Caspian Dennis of Abner Stein after an auction involving seven publishers.

The US publisher, Knopf, also won a bidding war to secure the novel from rivals.

City on Fire is set in New York in the 1970s, and culminates in the evening of the 1977 blackout. The novel is said to involve revolutionary punks and a love story.

UK publishers who have seen the novel have mixed feelings about its likely success in the UK. One called it a "game-changer" which would be a natural entrant for the Man Booker Prize, commenting: "It’s better than Franzen. Over here, I would say it’s better than Alan Hollinghurst, than Zadie Smith. It’s a deeply human and interesting work, with beautiful writing about the city and relationships."

Another publisher was not so enamoured, describing the 900-page manuscript as "quite patchy" and warning: “The novel is very much about New York in the 1970s and that was one of the issues for us here. Some of these very big books have travelled very well but there have been some stinkers.”

Hallberg’s editor at Jonathan Cape, Alex Bowler, told The Guardian the novel was “the only thing people are talking about in the industry”, and said: "You can feel people like Don DeLillo, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe and Patti Smith animating the writing – it's got that fizz, that energy and ambition. But I wouldn't use other books as comparisons. It's more like an HBO box set."

Thirty-four-year-old Hallberg has previously published an illustrated novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, and has contributed to The New York Times Book Review as well as being a contributing editor of The Millions blog. In a 2011 interview by Canteen Magazine, a website which asks writers to share details on their creative processes, the author said he was working on a book structured in seven parts, "each of which is the length of maybe a short novel." He also said the sections were connected by the same set of characters, and “the odd-numbered sections follow a set of actions that take place roughly between the bicentennial and the 1977 blackout” while the “even sections delve into that past’s past in ways that gradually reveal themselves to be connected”.

Read an extract from an early draft of the novel here.

Film rights for the novel were sold to Scott Rudin, producer of films including "Captain Phillips" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo".