Today, few novels feel like what the critic Lewis Hyde called “gifts”—the kind of works that can’t be created through an act of will, but that seem rather to be bestowed upon an author. City on Fire, however, does. Reviewers have pinpointed the novel’s journalistic attention to detail, as well as its passion and warm-heartedness, but the book also represents a new kind of interplay between television and fiction borne of the New Golden Age of TV. Starting roughly around the year 2000, shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Six Feet Under began playing around with characterization and plot with the kind of subtlety once only found in novels. City on Fire demonstrates how this new anxiety of influence is shaping the way fiction writers approach their work.
Despite the artistic progress TV has clearly made in the last 15 years, there’s still a very recognizable formula for a Golden Age serial drama, and it’s one that City on Fire unapologetically adopts in its structure. First, introduce a heterogeneous handful of characters from different walks of life. The novel follows a black gay novelist and his boyfriend; a heroin-addicted heir, who has a sister who’s married to a Wall Street trader; a punk-rock anarchist; a hard-boiled detective on crutches; a depressive journalist; and an old-fashioned firework maker with a daughter who’s the love interest of an asthmatic suburban kid.
In standard prestige-TV style, different characters in City on Fire are introduced at different times, and those who play bit parts in another character’s story get their own in-depth treatment later. The book flips perspectives over its 96 chapters accordingly, foregrounding some characters while backgrounding others. Many TV shows like to reveal early on—although late enough for it to be a surprise—that some of their characters are connected in odd, almost karmic ways (for example, Sawyer had drinks with Jack’s father on Lost before the plane crash). Correspondingly, nearly everyone in City on Fire is linked either in ways necessary for the plot, by happenstance, or by bisections of thoughts and deeds.
The serial-drama formula weaves characters around an encompassing plot device: drug manufacturing in Breaking Bad, drug busting in The Wire, solving a murder in True Detective, solving the island in Lost, becoming king in Game of Thrones, becoming president in House of Cards, becoming mob boss in The Sopranos, becoming champions in Friday Night Lights, managing an ad agency in Mad Men, managing a funeral home in Six Feet Under. Similarly, in City on Fire, the plot device is the shooting of the firework maker’s daughter in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, the mystery and consequence of which eventually draws in the entire ensemble cast.
The book is divided into seven sections that are essentially episodes, which are assigned lofty names like “Liberty Heights” and “Monads.” The book’s British publisher, Jonathan Cape, has even released what it called a “DVD box set” version of the proofs, where the seven sections are independently bound with their own stylized covers. As Alex Bowler, a senior editor at Jonathan Cape tellingly said, “I wouldn’t use other books as comparisons. It’s more like an HBO box set.” There’s a lot of backstory all sliced up into discrete sections—you can almost hear that rising hum from Lost signaling the beginning of a flashback segment. Hallberg employs this well-tested structure with a deft, creative hand. There are even differently formatted articles, diaries, and zines within the book, as if City on Fire is straining from the confines of its codex.