The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato
Melville House, 2015; pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
January is prime time for readers to catch up on releases missed during the prior year. If you find yourself in this camp, you would do well to add Catie Disabato's The Ghost Network (Melville House, May 2015) to your list. One can do so with certainty that nothing else like it came out of 2015; in terms of its ambition, its sprawling structure, and its allegiance to the hidden and the gloriously strange, it stands in a category of its own.
The Ghost Network traces an investigation into the disappearance of enigmatic pop star Molly Metropolis (think a cooler, spookier, David-Lynchian Lady Gaga), who leaves millions of her fans, known as "Pop Eaters," at a loss when she vanishes. Only a series of mysterious maps and a journal detailing her obsession with, among other things, the Chicago metro system, the avant-garde Situationist movement and its modern day offshoot group the New Situationists, and "a project she called the Ghost Network" which "catalogues not only a hypothetical transit system, but also one that would be nearly impossible to build and ridiculous to implement," remain. Fledgling music journalist Caitlin Taer, motivated by both the mystery and her own Metropolis fandom, determines to find Metropolis. Partnered with former Metropolis assistant Regina Nix and Metropolis's New Situationist connection Nick Berliner, Taer launches headlong into her own, dangerous investigation - which, in turn, results in her own disappearance.
From the start, there is a naturally sinister underbelly to the evidence left behind. "Once Molly and Taer's story begins to take definitive shape," it is said, "it quickly fizzles into absurdity, like a map of a world with slightly distorted proportions - almost normal looking at first, but on 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 that we know to be real." We are pressed: "This book isn't about the disappearance of Molly Metropolis or the death/disappearance of Caitlin Taer. It's the story of Taer looking for Molly Metropolis."
Yet the fact of Taer's disappearance in the book's first ten pages signals that the narrative runs much more deeply than the search for Metropolis. Network is a story of admirably broad scope, tale branching into tale: Chicago history, Situationist lore, architecture (and sexual fetishes relating to), impropmtu exorcisms, and more. There is a quality of pleasurable wandering throughout, punctuated by interview excerpts, scholarly speculation, and footnotes that function as a sort of call-and-response between the text and the author herself, acting as editor to an original scholarly work by an (also missing) academic detailing the disappearances.
The Molly Metropolis story, as told by Taer and then Disabato, bears a palpable thrill in both the case's search and research: worlds built by secrets and intense study and speculation in which both author and reader can become contentedly lost. The whole is, simply put, an extremely fun exercise in nerding out, reflecting the essence of its central character, as described by a Metropolis associate: "Molly loved secret histories. She also loved contradicting accounts of the same historical events. She liked ambiguities. She liked answerless questions. She told me that she was investigating the world that traditional maps hide from us...she felt like she had been walking down the street blindfolded, but she didn't know she was wearing a blindfold."
The Metropolis story appeals to our sense of the concealed places living under present streetscapes, the drive that leads one to abandoned buildings, map ephemera, the endless, unembarked plans and detours of what could have been and what is still possible. The Ghost Network achieves this world, established and true, with its own darkness, its own risks, and its own promises.