If you’ve ever ridden public transportation in a major city, you’ve seen hip young women with their headphones and their lace-up boots, their black jeans and faux fur, their deep V’s and slightly tortured vibes. Young women are always the locus of attention, both subtle and unsubtle, in any given space, but these beautiful tousled birds arouse particular interest; men crane their necks to look at their tattoos, less stylish women wonder if they too should attempt a bold red lip or, god forbid, a backless T. I see a young woman like this and wonder where she is going, what work she does. I wonder what she is listening to and the source of her intent expression.
If you read The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato’s excellent debut novel, you know that this girl might look preoccupied because she’s tracking a missing pop star to a secret underground train station, where the pop star may or may not have been taken by devotees of a European anarcho-surrealist movement of the 1960s. She may be worrying about the possibility of grave bodily harm at the hands of a revanchist splinter group. She may be pondering her death. She’s probably listening to the National.
To arrive at this awareness, you have to go through a number of turnstiles. In fact, there are so many consecutive entrances to The Ghost Network that I initially found it difficult to get into the story—as though the novel, like a secret underground portal, were disguised by its architect to look like something of little interest. The book begins with a note from the author, “Catie Disabato”—who could be, but more likely is not, the real author Catie Disabato—explaining that the text before you is one Disabato inherited from a man named Cyrus Archer. Archer’s manuscript begins with an epigraph from the rock critic Ellen Willis, before Archer explains in his own prologue that his book arose from a New Yorker article written by a former lover. Then we have a second epigraph, a quote from the Molly Metropolis from a purported article in the New York Times Magazine.
By the time the “manuscript” actually got started, I was dubious about so much frame-narrative cuteness, and my expectations were low. But then very swiftly the thing happened that you always hope will happen when you read a book; the subtle authorial alchemy took effect and I found myself transfixed by a mystery story in the best tradition. Part of Disabato’s alchemy has to do with the highly imaginative plot of The Ghost Network, which invents a complex, unexpected story for a handful of intense and underemployed twentysomethings in Chicago. But it is also a pitch-perfect glimpse of the spot where American popular culture overlaps with the private life and preoccupations of American youth.
The hipster girl everyone eyes on the train might be Catie Disabato’s 23-year-old heroine Caitlin Taer, musing about her occasional low-paying writing gigs for Pitchfork, or her favorite pop icon, Molly Metropolis, the aforementioned disappeared pop star. Molly Metropolis is a global sensation with avant-garde style, a Warholian entourage, and an army of fans she calls her “Pop Eaters.” Her Twitter is full of epigrammatic utterances, pastiches of quotations from Guy Debord—a French philosopher she admires—and her own owlish faux-profundities (“People are told they have a choice between love and a garbage disposal unit. I say fuck love, fuck garbage, EAT POP INSTEAD”). Molly and her army of loyal dancers make extravagant, rambunctious, spooky music videos for songs like “Apocalypse Dance” and “New Vogue Riche.” But one cold day in Chicago, just before she is slated to perform before a packed house of Pop Eaters, Molly disappears. The novel is the story-of-a-story-of-a-story about the young people who go looking for her: Caitlin Taer, the young music critic, Regina Nix, Molly’s former personal assistant, and an erudite young man named Nicholas Berliner.
Berliner was once a low-level member of the New Situationists, an homage group inspired by the Situationists, the aforementioned (and real-life) anarcho-surrealists led by Guy Debord in the 1960s. Before her disappearance, Molly Metropolis had been tracking this new, fictional iteration of the group, which disbanded after they inadvertently killed someone during an attack on a Chicago “L” station. Caitlin and Nix link up, become romantically involved, and seek out Berliner; together the three study Molly’s “Ghost Network,” an ambitious archive of every past, present, and imagine iteration of Chicago’s subway line, and try to figure out where Molly went.
The plot, obviously, is kind of difficult to explain, like an earnest, pared-down, hipster Foucault’s Pendulum. Not only are all of the plot turns above laid out through a multiframed narrative, replete with several people’s footnotes, but the events are interwoven with disquisitions on the history of map-making, Situationist philosophy, urban planning, and pop music. Some moments feel like the author is revisiting a beloved research project. But Disabato is deft enough with the carpentry involved that the joins are more or less invisible, or at least unobtrusive. Some of the plot lines are unlikely to the point of being ludicrous; at the very least, it seems unlikely that an international pop sensation and three of her full-time staff would be able to put together a huge digital and physical archive, as well as a user-friendly custom GIS setup. But Disabato’s plotting is so confident, and competent, that these things don’t really matter.
It’s rare for a contemporary novel to feel so resolutely zeitgeisty—to use a horrible term—without sacrificing the elements of good storytelling, or even the story itself. Take Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? or Tao Lin’s Taipei: Often the effort of capturing the quirks of modern-day speech or style or vibes, so to speak, can subsume events into atmosphere. And the events in a life we can recognize are often fairly straightforward: Someone slept with someone; someone has feelings. People sleep with people and have feelings in The Ghost Network, but they also blow up train stations and vanish in boating accidents. And yet throughout the fanciful plot there’s something so vividly current about Disabato’s characters—their drunken viewings of smoky-eye YouTube tutorials, their mournful Tumblr posts—that she is revealed to be a keen and trustworthy observer of the habits of the young.
Although these habits are not the central matter of The Ghost Network, the relationship between young people and popular culture forms a major plot point. Molly Metropolis is such a clear stand-in for Lady Gaga that it almost feels unnecessary to belabor the ways in which they are the same. Still, Disabato nails Molly’s pop culture mythology, from the simultaneous inanity and power of her music, to the impassioned and semi-literate response of the fans to Molly’s particular brand of spectacle:
The show began with the projected image of a glowing black and white skyscraper skyline, not specific to any city. A “chopped and screwed” version of the opening melody of “Apocalypse Dance” then played, as the projected city started to degrade and crumble. The sound of a pre-recorded intro filled the room: “My Pop Eaters. The ones who eat pop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You are the city kids. The ones who ran away to the city, the ones who are born there, the ones who dream of it.”
I can’t say whether Disabato’s explication of Situationist tenets measures up, but her feel for the language where youth meets pop culture is spot-on. Early in the story, Taer posts a Molly Metropolis song on her Tumblr with the reverent accompaniment: “THIS. THIS FOREVER. I’m so deeply in love with this song, it’s a little bit sick. There are just a few perfect pop songs in this world—‘Like a Prayer,’ ‘PYT,’ ‘Toxic,’ etc.—and this has joined the ranks … This is the Molly song people will play forever.” Compare this with a real description of Lady Gaga taken from the music website Stereogum: “And at its best, Gaga’s music is definitely awesome. ‘Bad Romance,’ ‘Poker Face,’ ‘The Edge of Glory’—these are timeless, triumphant pop songs, singles that will endure through the ages. They’re in the canon now, and they deserve to be …” Although the enthusiasm of both critics would be easy to poke fun at, Disabato seems fundamentally sympathetic to their tastes, writing fans like this with the faint suggestion, through the obliquity of Cyrus Archer’s fairly wooden reportage, of humor and tenderness.
The New Situationists who bombed the “L” stations, we are told, were protesting the fascist tendencies of post-9/11 government. But Caitlin Taer and Regina Nix and Nicholas Berliner don’t seem ideological. In fact, their collective tunnel vision for their project is partly the result of the aimlessness that characterized their lives until now. Caitlin wrote in her diary, listened to music, and obsessed over the bad carpeting in her apartment. Regina Nix was depressed and living with her parents. Berliner was in year 10 of his girlfriend’s 25-year-prison sentence, which casts a shadow over his entire youth.
For the seven-week period of their sleuthing, the three characters live out an “adolescent summer camp friendship,” drinking, listening to music, talking, and waiting for something to happen. The cozy, ephemeral nature of their friendship echoes the ’80s buddy/sibling movie, “Goonies,” or “Stand by Me,” or “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.” After an attack by the aforementioned revanchist splinter group, the three “piled into the main bed and spooned together, trying to feel protected and safe.”
At the risk of loading up this clever and imaginative novel with more meaning than it can stand, I’d go so far as to call it a great “millennial novel.” Millennials are understood, if we collate all the trend pieces about them, to be aimless, apolitical, full of anxiety, failing to launch. They are passionate but paralyzed; cynical and sensitive; feckless and fragile. They need wine and cuddling and a project.
In The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato hands them a good one. She gives her characters a big weird building to live in, a mystery to solve, and an ideology to adopt. And the ideology is right up the millennial alley. The Situationists, we learn, “were at war with the whole world, but lightheartedly”; their activities included wandering wherever the vibes of the city took them.
Disabato lets the young people keep their pop culture spectacle, their boozy nights, their beloved Pixies albums, but she gives them stakes—something beyond the dismal ordinary ones of defaulting on student loans or having to live with parents. Ellen Willis has said that rock music is at its heart a “catalyst for the moment of utopian inspiration,” one she looked for through “the filters of pop conventions and clichés.” Disabato understands this utopian inspiration. She understands that you never love anything like the people and ideas and music and art you fall in love with when you are young, even if your commitments are uneven and sometimes misplaced. Caring is creepy, like that one song says. But we can’t help it—we’re born this way.
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato. Melville House.