Which is the real sign of the times – a novel filled with television references, or the fact that the novel soon will be on HBO? (No, we aren’t going to bring up how low TV viewing has plummeted. Cuz that might ruin all this overthinking, intellectual fun:
by Erik P. Hoel
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.
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 havepinpointed 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 Firedemonstrates 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….
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