When it comes to storytelling (be it within a written piece, a film, a TV show, a video game, etc.), convolution normally results in one of two outcomes: a meticulously arranged, clever series of developments and twists that holds up under scrutiny and rewards repeated analysis, or a hodgepodge build-up of utter nonsense masking as crafty revelations. (Just look at the chronological filmography of M. Night Shyamalan to see how the former can devolve into the latter.) By the end of it, you’re baffled; however, you know that either there is logic behind it all if you really study it, or there isn’t (and thus, you’ve merely witnessed a plethora of improbable pretentiousness). Sure, you were likely entertained either way, but it’s always better when a text leaves you with worthwhile layers to contemplate afterward, right?
Fortunately, that’s exactly what The Ghost Network does. The debut effort by budding creative writer Catie Disabato (whose work within public relations, as well as contributions to The Rumpus and Full Stop, has granted her an authoritative, journalistic tone), the book is simultaneously a epistolary/pseudo non-fiction mystery, a satire of (and commentary on) pop star reverence, and an absorbing character study of several multifaceted personalities. Dizzyingly constructed yet undeniably fascinating, The Ghost Network is thoroughly intriguing and dense, with an abundance of techniques (including footnotes, meta-narration, and historical/background information) that make it feel entirely authentic. Few first novels have ever felt so confident, ambitious, idiosyncratic, and carefully composed; likewise, few authors ever write something that balances cunning, momentum, and accessibility this well. Disabato may be a fresh face in the literary world, but her style and schemes triumph over those of many seasoned scribes.
As with all mysteries, the less you know going in, the more you’ll enjoy the ride. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning the general concept of The Ghost Network. As the official synopsis states, the plot revolves around finding out what happened to Molly Metropolis, an “insanely famous pop singer … [who’s] on her way to a major performance in Chicago [one minute], and the next, she’s gone.” The tale is told by a fictional version of Disabato, who employs multilevel examinations similar to the ones utilized in Nolan’s Inception and Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Aided by “the singer’s personal assistant” (among other people) and lead by “a journal left behind in [Metropolis’] hotel room, and possible clues hidden in her songs,” she also discovers how the disappearance connects to both an intellectual/counterculture cult called The New Solutionists and abandoned plans for the Chicago subway system. As for what “The Ghost Network” refers to, well, you’ll just have to read it, as Disabato’s “larger-than-life fantasies – of love, sex, pop music, amateur detective work, and personal reinvention” are too masterfully spun to resist.
Although it’s slightly intimidating at first, the attention to detail that Disabato employs is simply astounding. For starters, the book is credited to Cyrus Archer, from whom Disabato “inherited … a polished draft of this manuscript, but not a complete one … I [Disabato] have tried to fill in the gaps in attribution as best I can, using Cyrus’s notes …” Likewise, nearly every page features parenthetical asides, supplemental commentary, and/or citations to bring realism to the narrative. For example, halfway through the book Disabato includes a footnote that reads: “Parts of the story of Taer’s search on this day came to Cyrus secondhand, from Nix. Other parts came from Taer’s notebook and recordings – CD.”
In addition, she constantly references interviews, music reviews, journal entries, and the like to enhance her ethos and logos. Conversely, her lengthy accounts of antique documents, integral people, and decisive (yet debatable) events provide a luscious foundation upon which her present protagonists newly stand. In other words, the core predicaments and players in The Ghost Network scratch only the surface of systems that date back centuries. Despite knowing that this work is fiction, these elements are so well done that they still force the reader to question whether or not any of this really happened. It’s truly remarkable.
Similarly, Disabato’s characters, dialogues, and situations are wonderfully unique and enticing, with behaviors, interactions, and developments that feel organic and distinctive. Take Metropolis herself, for example. A superstar with “more than forty million Twitter followers, and fan sites by the hundreds” she, like many real-life inspirations, transformed herself from an unassuming teenage girl into a pop culture phenomenon almost overnight. Her elaborate set designs, music videos, and choreography, coupled with the staggering success (and subsequent analysis) of conceptual albums like Cause Célèbrety and Cause Apocalyptic, portray her as an amalgam of divas like Madaonna, Lady Gaga, and Janelle Monáe.
However, her superficiality disguises potential genius, as Metropolis’ diary entries, private remarks, and public confessions reveal a prophetic, calculated mind who’s always a few steps ahead of, well, everyone else. In portraying Metropolis with such complexity, Disabato comments on the potentially falsified and manipulative personas pop stars may adopt to achieve acclaim, as well as their audiences’ love for spectacle over sophistication.
Naturally, the other main characters in the book, such as Caitlin Taer, Regina Nix, and Nicholas Berliner, are also highly engrossing. Full of secrets, motivations, and histories that are revealed with graceful patience, these characters are gratifyingly multilayered and inimitable, with tense exchanges and unforeseen decisions that leave readers further invested in the chic investigation with every chapter. Complementing these factors with a significant amount of sex and violence (as the genre typically requires), The Ghost Network earns its place alongside some of the best modern mysteries; it possesses the flashy frenzy of Orphan Black, the fundamental peculiarities of Twin Peaks, and the diligence of True Detective.
To discuss any more about The Ghost Network would spoil the ingenuity and surprises with which Disabato fills her debut novel. Although it may be cliché to say, you’ll be sucked into the book from the start of the prologue to the final sentiments of the epilogue; from there, you’ll be eager to discuss it with other readers once you’re done (which is proudly encouraged with the included reading group guide). While its intricacy and pace can be a bit distancing at first, in retrospect these aspects ultimately benefit the quality of the work, as they demonstrate how judiciously it was assembled. It’s the sort of density that deserves repeated immersion, which most readers will probably be happy to do. After all, once you log into The Ghost Network, you won’t want to log out.