There seem to be two camps when it comes to this doorstop of a novel, those who feel it was etched by the very finger of God and those who replaced their Ambien supply with a few pages from this book each night. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp.
I’m a big Hill fan, read Heart Shaped Box and 21st Century Ghosts long before I knew of his heritage, and generally enjoy the creativity he approaches with his work. With the killer concept of this novel — ba-dum-dum-ching — I thought this could potentially top his previous books. I mean, come on, a virus that causes spontaneous combustion? How cool is that?!?
But potential doesn’t always transform into greatness. After all, some one has to mean the fry greaser at McDonalds …
Without going into the plot of the book, I’ll share the main 3 things that kept me from really enjoying this one:
First: The plot.
Oh wait, didn’t I say I wasn’t going to go into the plot? Well, suffice it to say that it took 700 pages to cover what should have been ACT ONE in this novel. We never got an Act Two, and the denouement was so rushed and thrown together that I just wanted it over and couldn’t care less about the outcome. (Also, in a world this big how is it that the same people keep popping back up as pseudo-villains … come on!?!)
Second: After Christmasland and the craziness that was NOS4ATU, this novel feels like someone dampened out the flames, leaving only coals burning. For such a high concept, we never experience the heights of what could have been a truly epic tale. Instead I felt like an editor came in and stripped the story of every big moment, dulling it down into a more subtle small-scale rendition.
Q: So why did it require almost 800 pages???
A: It didn’t. This is like every “epic” movie that came out after Lord of the Rings maximizing its screen-time to 3 and a half hours when the same movie could have (and should have) been told in an hour and a half.
In the words of Elmore Leonard: “When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” I could have done with about 2/3 less of this book and still have captured the entire story when reading it.
Third: I never felt attached to a single character. Harper, the story’s protagonist, is one of the most unexciting characters I’ve ever read. And the enigmatic Fireman really wasn’t given all that much to do. Sort of like casting Johnny Depp and then forgetting to give him any lines.
I’m not sure why, but I really feel like Hill pulled back as far as he could with this one, reigning himself in time and time again until the life was sort of sucked from the book he created. Maybe too many drafts? Maybe spending four years on a single book? Maybe the trees became a forest which was set ablaze and all the smoke kept him from finding his way out? I don’t know the reason, and I’m glad others are finding this an enjoyable and unforgettable experience, it just never moved me and felt like a chore to get through. Two and a half-sputtering stars.