City on Fire Proves How Culturally Dominant Television Has Become

Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic novel shares a startling number of similarities with prestige shows like The Wire and Mad Men—for better and worse.

Jordan Alport / HBO / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The thousand pages took seven years to write. Ten publishing houses competed in an auction for the final product, with the highest bid reportedly being close to $2 million dollars—making Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel City on Fire the industry event of the year. Hallberg, a widely published literary critic, offers breadth and depth in his reviews, and references flitting from Watchmen to Don DeLillo to James Wood. But upon finishing City on Fire, my thoughts weren’t on the world of literary criticism and novels at all, but rather on serial television.

Even before his novel was published, TV frequently recurred as a motif in Hallberg’s own reviews. In 2011, he compared the structure of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King to that of the show Lost. In another review, he pointed out the literary antecedents of various characters on Downton Abbey. A self-described “enthusiast” of HBO-type dramas, he urged grieving fans to pick up novels by Joseph Heller or Robert Graves when The Sopranos ended.

Hallberg has even acknowledged that City on Fire was influenced by the sprawling HBO show The Wire, whose five seasons each focused on a different stratum of Baltimore life. Certainly, the superficial connections are there: Set in 1970s New York City, the novel is about urban decay, drug addiction, and honor-bound but emotionally flawed detectives. Still, the structural similarities go deeper. City on Fire has an undeniable televisual quality to it, apparent in its writing, episodic nature, characterization, and length. A grand, ambitious, and extraordinarily well-written work, City on Fire also represents a natural progression in the aesthetic influence of television—for better and worse.

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.

It’s not just the structure, but also the style that’s televisual. Hallberg has a vast vocabulary, as well as pitch-perfect powers of description. He excels in particular at capturing the staples of bourgeois homes (think different up-dos and types of dressers). As one of his characters daydreams:

Sing, O Muse, of high, molded ceilings and built-in bookcases chockablock with hardcovers! Sing of armchairs with scarlet upholstery and high-boys lacquered like mirrors and the elegant shadows of potted palms! Sing of a chandelier made entirely of antlers! Of what looked to be a genuine Matisse on the wall above the hearth!

But there’s a deep purpose in his having the eye of an interior decorator. He uses this attention to detail to create the literary equivalent of long, panning cinematic shots. Here’s a brief example from when a character attends a masked party thrown by her mother-in-law Felicia:

… she took a glass of champagne and turned around. A gap in the crowd offered her a first glimpse of her father’s wife, backlit by a stone fireplace big enough to walk around in. Against the flames, Felicia’s body was a smudge, save for her mask, whose red sequins shimmered intelligently. Peacock feathers soared from each temple. Then the party swallowed her once more.

This kind of linguistic steadicam crosscuts from one character’s storyline to another’s, creating beautifully lined-up cinematic shots. Reading City on Fire gave me vivid mental images of the scene and the characters, but in my imagination the scenes were themselves also playing out on a screen. If the producer Scott Rudin (who tellingly bought the film rights before Knopf had even picked up the publishing rights) adapts City in Fire for television, he won’t need much of a script, or even a set designer.

City on Fire’s television-like plotting, pacing, characterization, and writing, as well as the lengthy and episodic nature of it, is undeniably mimetic of Golden Age TV. But City on Fire can equally be seen as a challenge to contemporary television: Everything you can do I can do better. Hallberg’s book is perhaps implicitly trying to offer up a strategy to novelists for dealing with the popularity of contemporary television: appropriating its playbook.

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It’s been 25 years since David Foster Wallace wrote his treatise “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” analyzing the relationship between the contemporary TV of his day and the culture at large. Specifically, Wallace examined TV’s effect on writers, presenting the medium in 1990 as both a threat and a thing to be overcome—a propagator of the forces of irony, sarcasm, and simulacra that had to be resisted artistically. When Wallace checked The New York Times Arts and Leisure section on August 5, 1990, he found only “weary contempt for television as a creative product”—a fact that didn’t quell Americans’ six-hour-a-day habit. But that weary contempt that Wallace cited no longer exists. In 2015, 25 years later to the day, the same section of The New York Times Arts and Leisure website was rapt with praise, specifically praise of an artistic nature, for modern-day TV.

Yet, despite this change in status, TV is still especially problematic for writers in some of the same ways Wallace originally pointed out. As voyeuristic beings, “human situations are writers’ food.” This writerly instinct becomes corrupted by television watching, because “What young writers are scanning for data on some reality to fictionalize is already composed of fictional characters in highly ritualized narratives.” The problem for contemporary writers like Hallberg is that the closer you push your writing to be like a really good TV show, the greater the urge to use all your powers of realism to portray the kinds of people you see on really good TV shows, the types of scenes you see on TV shows, and so on.

After all, even Golden Age shows are still chockablock full of tropes and clichés—long-evolved methods for entertaining mass amounts of people in a reliable manner—and those tropes begin to slosh over the walls in televisual writing. The most common criticism of City on Fire is its enormous length and how it drags in some sections. These aren’t incidental properties of the novel. Rather, they’re a necessary consequence of its televisual style of writing. If the same story events were playing out onscreen, the narrative tempo would be pitch perfect, but in prose it comes across as over-described and sluggish. You could unwind City on Fire’s televisual structure and put Hallberg’s ambitious, empathetic, and intelligent writing into a much more realistic, less contrived, and less episodic format—and you would have just as good of a novel, if not a better one.

Of course, comparing City on Fire to only television shows is unfair—it draws a lot from big Dickensian novels (as do the Golden Age shows), and contains many other literary allusions. At some coarse-grained level of abstraction, the way we tell stories, even in different mediums, doesn’t vary that much structurally. Yet in other ways the medium matters a great deal. City on Fire is at its best when it turns its fine-scale cinematic writing to the interior of its characters’ minds. Consider the reaction the asthmatic teen has to finding the girl he loves shot in Central Park:

If only she’d stayed by his side. Why hadn’t she? And this would pain him in retrospect, because he shouldn’t have been thinking about himself at this moment, or imagining it didn’t happen however it had happened. He would have to live with the fact that this was how he reacted to other people’s suffering—selfishly.

That kind of momentary dive directly into a character’s consciousness is not something that the medium of TV can do. Which means that the anxiety cuts both ways: Good TV shows often become frustrated they are not novels. They use whatever contortions they can to try to get around the limitation. The Wire and Breaking Bad both rely on massive amounts of exposition. The Sopranos has Tony see a therapist, allowing access to his inner life through their conversations. In Six Feet Under, the dead speak to the main characters in similarly therapeutic conversations. House of Cards literally just breaks the fourth wall. The multiple narrators being interviewed about the past in True Detective allows access to the character’s perspectives in a way that a straightforward temporal structure would not. On top of such structural tricks, most shows are pressured to keep every conversation unrealistically emotionally charged, just so viewers know what’s going on inside. To compete with novels, TV characters take on warped proportions, forced to engage in semaphore to broadcast even the simplest thought or emotion.

The ease with which Hallberg occupies his character’s consciousnesses puts in stark contrast the limitations of television. Meaning that City on Fire can mimic such TV shows freely, to its benefit but also to its detriment, all while TV shows can’t mimic back—trapped in a screen, they can’t go any deeper than the surface of their characters’ minds.