Margot McGovern reviews The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato.
The world’s most famous pop star is missing, another woman is dead and a third is in prison for bombing a Chicago train station several years earlier. All are connected by their knowledge of a secret society that may or may not still exist.
Catie Disabato’s debut novel, The Ghost Network is an ambitious thriller, drawing together fifteenth century cartography, the ideas of French Marxist theorist and founding member of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, and contemporary pop culture.
When Molly Metropolis disappears before a performance in Chicago on the eve of the release of her second album, Cause Apocalypse, struggling music journalist, Caitlin Taer, teams up with Metro’s former assistant, Regina Nix, and close friend, Nicholas Berliner, to solve the mystery of her disappearance. The clues the trio find in the notebooks and collection of maps and artwork Metro leaves behind will take them deep into Chicago’s underground, and none of them can foresee just how deep the rabbit hole goes:
Once Molly and Taer’s story begins to take definitive shape, it quickly fizzles into absurdity, like a map of a world with slightly distorted proportions—almost normal looking at first, but on a second viewing, a terrible deviation, a ghost of a place that never was, a land that couldn’t be, a burning and terrible world beneath everything we know to be real.
The story is narrated with old-school Gothic flair. It is ostensibly written by academic Cyrus K. Archer, with an epilogue and footnotes by Disabato—a former student of Archer’s who takes on the task of editing the manuscript in the wake of Archer’s death. The ‘recovered manuscript’ adds an extra layer to the mystery and the frame narrative serves to heighten suspense and the reader’s sense of unease, further fragmenting the story and placing another distorting lens between the reader and the truth. Archer’s voice is a little thin in places—at times he sounds too much like the ‘pop eaters’ he’s investigating rather than the Ivy League educated academic he is. At other times his objectivity makes it difficult for the reader to connect with Taer, Nix and Berliner and they appear more like agents necessary to move the plot forward rather than fully fleshed out characters. However, for the most part Archer’s dry reportage creates an unsettling juxtaposition with the increasingly bizarre events of the narrative.
The mystery itself is an intriguing one and Molly Metropolis, the woman at its heart, is a compelling figure. She’s revolutionised pop culture, creating ‘a scene where people could claim non-conformity by listening to music made by the most popular artist in the country’, and with her playfulness, dramatic sense of style, song titles such as ‘Apocalypse Dance’ and ‘New Vogue Riche’, statements like: ‘I just wanted to feel the whole history of culture resonating through me’ and her attitude of making her life a work of art, she bears strong resemblance to Lady Gaga, she even refers to her fans, the pop eaters, as her ‘monsters’. But as the mystery unfolds, Metro becomes as an increasingly complex and enigmatic figure:
During a time when pop singers like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears cultivated down-to-earth public personalities and signed away their last shreds of privacy to MTV’s reality television factory, Molly wanted her persona to be like parties at Holly Golightly’s apartment: crowded and so fun you forget you never really spoke to the hostess.
Metro becoming a pop star is just the first step in a much larger plan. She glimmers at the edges of the story, an unknowable ‘Other’, and the closer Taer, Nix, Berliner and Archer come to finding her, the more she fragments and distorts, slipping beyond their grasp.
The realisation that Metro isn’t just another pop star and The Ghost Network isn’t a typical whodunnit thriller will catch some readers off guard. So, fair warning: The Ghost Network is not a simple detective story, but rather a narrative heavily rooted in cultural theory, specifically the ideas of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, a group of theorists who (in brief) wanted to abolish the idea of art as sacred and remake the world’s cities as sites of continual rebuilding and play. Large chunks of the narrative are devoted to explaining Debord’s work and ideas and how they were taken up by a fictional group, the New Situationists, in Chicago in the years prior to Molly Metropolis’ rise to fame. The theory is presented in an accessible way, so readers don’t need a PhD to follow along, but these sections of the narrative read as ‘pop academia’, and the story as a whole has a ‘text book’ feel. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and fans of authors such as Scarlett Thomas and Marisha Pessl will find it appealing, if a little dry in places.
Stories like The Ghost Network—the kind that require an elaborate set up, carefully constructed over several hundred pages—can often leave the reader feeling let down by an underwhelming ending. Disabato avoids this. While the story as a whole doesn’t always spark with suspense, the ending is a satisfying one and leaves the reader fulfilled, yet still grasping at a truth just out of reach.
The Ghost Network is a thinking reader’s thriller. While it moves at a stately rather than break-neck pace, it’s clever, complex and glitters with fantastic flights of imagination, and Disabato is an exciting young writer to watch.
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