The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato’s innovative and troubling debut novel, takes seriously the idea of a celebrity conspiracy theory: when the Lady Gaga–like pop star Molly Metropolis goes missing, one writer refuses to consider any proposed explanation, setting out to reveal what happened to her. The reporter, Cyrus Archer, develops an immense and sincere fascination with the singer, an obsession shared with millions of “Pop Eaters,” Molly’s adoring fans. One of these committed listeners, Taer, is an aspiring Chicago-based music journalist now believed deceased. She becomes Archer’s focus: he isn’t convinced she died, and he discovers evidence that links Taer’s disappearance with Molly’s. His investigation also relies heavily on a pair of Molly’s friends and work associates who were with Taer when she allegedly drowned in Lake Michigan, Regina Nix and Nicolas Berliner. Through the two of them, Archer confirms the three had been searching for Molly. Soon, like a blogger after Beyoncé, he believes he could be looking for much more.
His invasive research involves perusing through boxes of Taer’s diaries, a collection that, “with a hodge-podge of styles,” makes “the truth and the context of the writing difficult for an outside reader to ascertain.” However, Archer purports to be something of an expert: “having thoroughly studied Taer’s journals,” he obtains “a knack for deciphering her idiolect,” and it’s the first of his many remarks that attempt to assert his intimate knowledge on the subject. And he’s not the only one to do it: his old college student, a character named Catie Disabato, has edited Archer’s draft, the book we’re reading. She fills in gaps where gaps need to be filled, and in addition to the footnotes provided by Archer, she includes those of her own, offering theories about how her former mentor found certain facts, how he maneuvered through notable gaps, and how he arrived at unpredictable conclusions.
The incessant declaration of Archer’s reliability can register as thorough research, or as a sophisticated equivalent of saying “everything is fine” when it isn’t. That is, we’re never entirely sure if he has uncovered the truth, but we’re never entirely unsure, either. The dots almost connect, but deleting the “almost” would take great effort. Similar to Taer’s notebooks, Archer’s manuscript is a splattering of different forms and methods — philosophical analyses, cultural criticisms, academic deconstructions of pseudo-history — and his prose reflects the nature of his diverse and exclusive Molly-related scoops: the mystery of an uncharted island, the meaning of an end-of-the-world map, and most importantly, the Situationist International, a nearly forgotten group of social revolutionaries led by Guy Debord in the 1960s. At the center of his discovery is, naturally, The Ghost Network. Although Disabato’s title could belong to a Robert Ludlum novel, or an action film starring Tom Cruise, “The Ghost Network” actually refers to Molly’s catalog of “every single L train line ever built in Chicago and [combining] them with every single L train not built.” Her reason for the extensive undertaking is part of the mystery Archer divulges (and Taer, Nix, and Berliner pursue), and once revealed, it thoroughly explains why she sought to produce pop music from a young age.
Molly’s interest in mapping the Chicago L and its unrealized potential stems, primarily, from the Situationists, who expounded a philosophy that combined anti-authoritarian Marxism with the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century. In her youth, Molly adopted their ideas, particularly those of détournement (“both the appropriation and the correction of culture as common property”) and dérive (“walking without a destination”). Now, her Ghost Network project highlights the maturing of her larger aesthetic vision: like Debord and his followers, she longs for a “New Babylon” of “restless architecture,” where buildings “shift and change based on the whims and desires of the inhabitants.” It’s no wonder she chose the surname Metropolis: if used and designed in the Situationist way, the city can be just as much a work of art, she believes, as her own body.
Molly’s desire for fame, then, was never shallow. Like Oscar Wilde (“life imitates art more than art imitates life”), she “strove to make the act of living her life its own art”: “she created a scene where people could claim non-conformity by listening to music made by the most popular artist in the country,” a unique quality not “seen since Kurt Cobain took his own life.” With Molly, Disabato directly — and aptly — confronts the psychology of the celebrity, and it’s serendipitous timing that The Ghost Network arrives with the release of Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck, the well-received documentary that presents a new glimpse into the Nirvana front man’s tumultuous life. Morgen’s narrative complicates the most popular belief about Cobain’s death — his fatal struggle with being in the international spotlight — and shows a portrait of a person troubled (and suicidal) since youth. Comparatively, The Ghost Network offers an alternative understanding to celebrity, albeit in the extreme form of a conspiracy. Taken at surface value, it’s ridiculous to think that someone like Taylor Swift, or Miley Cyrus, or Justin Timberlake could be artistically motivated by an obscure branch of Marxism. That being said, it’s equally ridiculous to think all these men and women only live for one publicity stunt after another. Swinging around half-naked on a wrecking ball isn’t just for the controversial press, nor is it an overt statement on the pitfalls of capitalism. It likely exists somewhere in the middle. But that’s not Disabato’s concern: she wants to tip the scale so drastically in one direction that we question what’s even on the other side.
In doing so, however, she might add a bit too much weight. Given the structure, reading the novel can feel like watching far too many episodes of Ancient Aliens in a row. At its best, the television series introduces new ways to view things of which we already have preconceived notions (the dinosaurs’ extinction, Abrahamic religions, urban legends). At its worst, it suggests aliens built pyramids in modern-day Mexico. The problem with a conspiracy is that it requires no rational justification for existing, which means that anything can happen. In Disabato’s novel, the standard cause-and-effect of a traditional narrative — a plot driven by the characters’ action and dialogue — is replaced by too much explanation, or no explanation at all. So we’re left with two options: we can attribute the mistakes to the intricate framework (a detective-like novel masked as a fictional nonfiction account about a conspiracy), or to authorial oversight.
Is it a comment on our social media–obsessed culture that Taer records everything (especially conversations crucial to advancing drama), or is it lazy storytelling? Is it believable that Molly’s diary, unearthed by happenstance, holds large clues about where she might have went? Who would want to fall off the grid and give such hints? That’s like fleeing prison and accidentally giving the police detailed instructions on where you’re going. And just because Archer doesn’t personally know all his subjects doesn’t explain how and why they act as they do: for it appears all of Disabato’s characters conduct themselves as if they have no basic concept of consequence. Despite being law-abiding citizens their entire lives, once they’re involved in The Ghost Network, they turn into criminals at a moment’s notice: two of Molly’s dancers, Ali and Peaches, resort to kidnapping, mutilation, and arson; a record label intern quickly turned spy, Tony Casares, has no problem breaking and entering; and Nix carries around a gun as if, in the past, she carried around a gun. The concept of secrecy for an underground cult with terrorist aspirations is to use burner cell phones and send texts opposite of the message intended: 9/11 means “low priority”; “hey” means emergency. When one character, Marie-Hélène Kraus, decides to blow up a train station, she does so taking only someone’s word that no one will be there. (She does pull the fire alarm as a precaution.) The Ghost Network could all be very funny and brilliantly satirical; it could be subversive, a criticism on technology, on surveillance, on an American preoccupation with celebrity culture. But in order for this to be the case, there at least needs to be one person who vaguely behaves like a human being. It’s not enough to tell us how everything with Molly and Taer “quickly fizzles into absurdity, like a map of a world with slightly distorted proportions.” Someone has to bear witness to the insanity. Here, there’s no one with a shred of doubt.
And that, unfortunately, isn’t the only issue. The dialogue is mostly uniform, and the diction is inconsistent: an Esquire article by Berliner (greatly quoted) is difficult to differentiate from Archer’s words, which range from phrases like they “copulated” and “post-coital” to “a taste of medicine.” Furthermore, it’s hard not to view Archer’s tone as occasionally stilted, as he constantly qualifies places and events with exhausting and precise appositives: Columbia College in Chicago, “an arts college unaffiliated with Columbia University in New York”; Lollapalooza, “Chicago’s giant summer music festival”; and even Chicago’s L, “the city’s elevated train line.” These could each be easily inferred, or described in a more oblique manner. Even worse: at one point, in the prologue, he goes so far as to explicitly state what the story is and isn’t “about”: “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, and whether or not she was found.” As Jeffrey Eugenides advises in an interview with The Paris Review, “when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down.” Disabato might not wholly “dumb things down” with Archer, but she does, at times, come close.
Still, despite these flaws, The Ghost Network is very much aware of the present — how we record information, how we handle privacy and publicity, how we can interact on Twitter with an actress living in Beverly Hills. And undoubtedly, there’s a certain fascination in American culture with celebrity conspiracy theories: beyond the Illuminati and Beyoncé, Courtney Love shot Kurt Cobain, Tupac is alive and releasing albums, the CIA poisoned Bob Marley. Some of South Park’s satire comes directly from treating all these ridiculous stories as if they are true: recently, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made Lorde a 45-year-old man in disguise. While Thomas Pynchon concerns himself more with the never-ending loops of capitalism (each company and corporation, for him, is always connected to another), he doesn’t ignore celebrity: based in 1970s Los Angeles, Inherent Vice focuses on a disappeared real estate mogul — a man who, today, could likely be featured on a Kardashian-esque reality show. Of course, Disabato isn’t the first to identify it, but she is unique — and should be applauded — in exploring the effects of a celebrity vanishing, something that hasn’t really occurred in real life. Plenty have ridded this world at their peak — Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse — but none have willingly tried to flee, to leave at their prime, their whereabouts unknown.
Because if they did, where would they have to go?