As Fun as Cotton Candy, and Just as Substantial – A Review of The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

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Several years ago, a close friend of mine talked about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and how she wanted to read it. Since this friend is one of the people whose taste in books I trust most, I decided that, if she was so enthused by the prospect of reading House of Leaves, it might be a good idea to give it a try as well.

That proved to be a very good decision indeed, as House of Leaves has stuck with me as one of the most terrifying horror stories I’ve ever read. It also reintroduced me to the horror genre (after many years without, having already outgrown the Goosebumps books by the time I was fourteen) by showing me that jump scares might not be my thing, but creeping psychological horror very definitely is. While admittedly Danielewski’s style can take some time to get used to, my previous experience reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges prepared me quite well for reading and appreciating Danielewski’s novel. (I do, however, rather agree with some of Danielewski’s critics, who claim that there are times when his style sometimes feels more like the author patting himself on the back for being so clever, instead of actually improving the narrative.)

Because of this previous reading history, as well as my interest in books that play with similar concepts, I was drawn to Catie Disabato’s novel The Ghost Network. Set in and around Chicago, It tells the story of two young women who attempt to unravel the mysterious disappearance of pop star Molly Metropolis just before a major concert. The story is presented as a work of investigative journalism written by a man named Cyrus Archer, then subsequently completed, edited, and published by Disabato, who claims in the Editor’s Note that she inherited a “polished draft” of the manuscript from Archer himself.

This style of storytelling, as I have mentioned, is nothing new to me: I’ve encountered it many times in Borges’ work, and Danielewski’s House of Leaves is done in a similar fashion. Through it, the writer is able to blur fact with fiction, leaving it up to the reader to figure out which is which. Some readers find this irritating, but I (and other readers who share my opinion) enjoy this kind of game. It gives the sense that the writer trusts enough in his or her readers to be able to tease apart the tangle on their own, and to appreciate the challenge along the way. I can see how this would not work for some readers who are not looking for that kind of challenge in their reading, but I, for my part, am always happy when a writer puts it in front of me – especially so if there is some level of difficulty to the challenge. There is a certain thrill to be had in the chase, in figuring out fact from fiction and realising which is which. I have to turn to Google and Wikipedia every so often, but that is part of the fun, since doing so often expands my knowledge base and leads me down other, interesting routes of inquiry.

Disabato also uses it quite well in The Ghost Network – and I say this because, aside from the obvious (specifically: anything to do with Molly Metropolis), it took a while for me to figure out which bits were fact and which were fiction, particularly where it concerned the Situationists. Since I had never heard of them until I picked up this novel, I wasn’t quite sure if Situationism was an actual movement or not, and I had to check Wikipedia in order to make sure that it was, in fact, a thing. I now know that, yes, Situationism was an actual movement, and many of its proponents mentioned in the novel did in fact exist. What I am less certain of are the little details Disabato mentions, such as their romantic affairs and personal squabbles. Since I am not particularly interested in learning more about the Situationists and their movement, I have simply decided to accept whatever details Disabato includes about them as “truth” – at least in the context of the novel. I leave it up to other, more invested readers to determine whether or not all the details are indeed factual.

The problem with this style, however, is that it is very easy for the narrative to wander away from the main plot line and not come back to it for a while. This does no favours for the novel’s pacing, which has the terrible tendency to slow down just when things are starting to pick up. Of course, this would not be too much of an issue if the digressions were in themselves interesting, but I did not think this was the case. Other readers are likely to disagree with me on this, but since, as I said, I am not interested in the Situationists, nor am I particularly interested in Chicago, the digressions from the main plot did the story no favours in terms of pacing. It also doesn’t help that all the fluff is not even that important to the story’s ultimate climax – gives it texture, perhaps, and some heft, but not much else.

There are some issues with characterisation as well. Molly Metropolis is in many ways the novel’s central character even though she never quite appears in it, and is the biggest highlight of the novel. Various characters in the story give descriptions of her, but the one that truly made her into a living, breathing character in my head is the following excerpt:

“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,” Berliner said. “She said she felt like she had been walking down the street blindfolded, but she didn’t know she was wearing a blindfold. One day, she realized the blindfold was there and she pulled it off, but the place she saw was so unfamiliar that she couldn’t recognize it without a guide. …”

I like this particular insight into Molly as a person because it so clearly deviates from her image as a Lady Gaga-esque pop star. While I am certain that more than a few pop stars out there have hobbies and interests most people would not think they are interested in or engaged with, it is Molly’s specific interest in ambiguities and “answerless questions” that makes her into a far more complex character than almost all the others in this novel. Whereas the other characters can be distilled down into a caricature, easily put into a box, I cannot say the same for Molly – and that, for me, is important when it comes to characterisation.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other characters. They are interesting in brief spurts, but after a while they start to lose their shine. I am particularly disappointed with the villains, whom I thought could have had stronger motivations for doing what they did aside from the one that was given in the story – not least because of the amount of buildup that went into leading up to their role in the whole thing. So much had gone into building up the villains into something much larger than they actually were, that when they and their motivations were finally revealed, it almost felt like I was reading a conspiracy theory threaded together by high schoolers with too much time on their hands and too lazy to do anything more than a cursory Google search.

Despite these flaws, however, the novel is still fun – at least, as long as the reader is reading it. I have come to many of my conclusions in the days after I’ve put it down, when there has been time to really sit back and take it apart in a way that reveals all its flaws. While reading it, however, I quite enjoyed it, as my journal notes on the book attest. I suppose that if I was the kind of reader who was content with being entertained, I would be quite happy with this book, but since I am not, I cannot help but feel disappointed.

Overall, The Ghost Network is an entertaining read, but feels much like eating cotton candy: satisfying in the short term, but vaguely disappointing in the long term. Disabato’s writing is not all that bad, but the novel does not do a good job of bringing together all its disparate parts into one cohesive whole, nor do the characters (save Molly Metropolis) hold up well under sustained scrutiny (or reading, for that matter). This is a read that is best got through in one sitting; it must not be allowed to sit and wait, as it has the terrible tendency to go mildly rotten if left out for too long.

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