When You’re on the Metro and Feeling Meta

A Review of Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network

“Like a map of a world with slightly distorted proportions almost normal looking at first, but on a 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.”

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato is like a subway map. It is a tangled web of (story)lines that weave in and out of one another, intersecting at key places, seemingly unfinished in others. But somehow, they come full circle.

At the nexus of the story is Molly Metropolis, a pop sensation and cultural icon who mysteriously disappears, and the people who go looking for her: Caitlin Taer, a wannabe music journalist; Regina Nix, Caitlin’s girlfriend and Molly’s assistant; and the ever-shady Nicholas Berliner, a member of Molly’s inner circle of confidants. Their stories, secrets, and subway escapades are inextricably linked to the question of Molly’s disappearance, and ultimately, to its answer.

It is a smartly and intricately plotted novel (within a novel) narrated from the perspective of Cyrus Archer, a journalist and academic who also vanishes while writing about the equally intriguing quartet of friends, and finished by his protégé, the eponymous Catie Disabato. The fictitious Catie, who inherits Cyrus’s unfinished manuscript, overlays the text with footnotes in an attempt to further clarify or elaborate on Cyrus’s findings.

At times, the level of detail in the story feels heavy. The footnotes that are scattered throughout the book, feel like red lights. It’s like when the train you’re riding in suddenly stops. In a tunnel. And. Stalls. As you wait. For the train ahead. To finally. Move. You can practically hear your own breath, or the song playing in your neighbor’s headphones, in the thick silence.

For the most part, though, the novel is incredibly efficient. Its journalistic tone lends a matter-of-fact, unsentimental telling of events. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, there’s a certain realness to the story. The story is anchored in references to real-life places (the novel is set in the Chicago area in the present day) and pop culture references (think Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga). You forget that you’re reading a work of fiction. That said, the language feels a little uninspired and exacting. Safe to say, the writing is grounded, not soaring.

But this is not a book to be read like poetry, slow like honey (to quote Fiona Apple). Oh no. It is to be read for its fast-paced action. And coolness. And originality.

Like a train, the action quickly becomes unstoppable, roaring ahead to the next destination. What will happen next? you wonder as you quickly turn the page, breathless in anticipation. What happened to Molly? you think to yourself as you race toward the truth, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. Until you reach the next chapter … or your stop. Whichever comes first.

How Should a Person Be?, by the uniquely brilliant Sheila Heti …

“For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t. There are some people who say you have to find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks.

Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart.”

Without a doubt, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is the most wonderfully original, eclectic, eccentric book I’ve read this year, or in many years, for that matter. Toronto native Heti has created something that transcends the limits of genre – is it a play? is it poetry? is it an autobiography? is it fiction? is it a novel? is it a to-do list? In short, it is all of the above and more.

The plot follows the eponymous Sheila in the months following her divorce as she struggles to complete work on a play for which she has been commissioned. During this time the central question that occupies her mind is: How should a person be? In the midst of grappling with her new reality and for searching answers to life’s eternal questions, she befriends Margaux, an eccentric painter, and embarks upon a tawdry love affair with an artist named Israel. As she navigates her new relationships and new identity, she stumbles, she wanders, she gets lost, and she comes back home. Along the way, she learns important lessons about art, friendship, and herself. This is of course an over-simplication of the key plot points as the book is, in many ways, a small metaphor for life. It’s messy and simple and difficult and sublime and revolting and ordinary and ethereal and…

While the book’s premise of self-discovery is tried-and-true, what I found most striking about the book is the author’s voice. Heti knows exactly how to pierce the reader’s heart with the most deliciously unexpected turn of phrases that linger in the memory – a long finish – long after the book is finished:

It was like innocence, like floating in syrup….
      It was a month of impatience, of stillness, like being set in amber….
               There was a lightness all through me….
                       You feel the missing of the person?

Lingering.

Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue is …

… heartbreakingly beautiful.

While the book is technically a novel, in my opinion, it actually reads as a collection of nine interconnected short stories. Each chapter is told from a wildly different point of view of one of the residents or visitors to Mamarrosa, Portugal. While the cast of characters appears to be somewhat of a motley crew (yes, pun intended), they are unified by a desire to better understand their place in the world, their relationship to place, and what it means to be Portuguese.

To quote Fiona Apple (of all random things), this book is at times slow like honey. But in the slowness of the storytelling is how Ali is able to distill some of life’s most poignant longings. What I find particularly stunning about Ali’s writing is her ability to create photographic compositions through sheer description. As I was reading, I came upon some truly arrestingly gorgeous moments:

So we stay as we are and watch the shadows lengthen…and feel the sun slipping low, blushing over our necks like the first taste of wine.  

The land rose and fell in modest dimensions. Now and again a gleam of machinery, glittering drops of water on an acacia, a giant eucalyptus shedding its splintery scrolls. Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, and on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy. (This last sentence just takes my breath away.)

Now that I think about it, aside from the visual aspects of Ali’s storytelling, there’s a deeply musical quality to her writing. Namely, I’m referring to form. Over the course of the nine stories, there is a clear emotional arc intertwined with moments of pause and reflection. In my view, the book reaches the height of its crescendo in chapter six with the story of Teresa, a girl-not-yet-woman who is on the cusp of leaving Portugal for a new life in London.

Leaving and loss is a central theme in the book, and along with that, nostalgia, bittersweet hope, and longing for someplace, somewhere, something, someone.

Saudade.

Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut collection of short stories, Battleborn, is …

… stunning.

What I find most striking about her work is the way in which her writing evokes a sense of place. Watkins’ prose style is as minimal and arid as the Nevada desert about which she writes. At times, the writing feels sparse. But it is in this sparseness where Watkins create a vast emotional space for the reader to linger. In the space between what is said on the page and what is imagined, we hope and feel the enormous loss that her characters carry, whether it be the loss of a loved one, a possibility, or a moment in time. This spacious quality to Wakins’ writing also makes the lovely sentences in her collection all the more heartbreaking. Take, for example:

At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.

Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.

I watch the sun dipping down into the water.

December had crisped the air pleasantly, and the day was beautiful.

There are several common threads running through each of the stories: hope, loss, self-destruction, belonging, fear, escape, wanting, especially wanting. At their emotional core, her stories are about lost souls yearning for some long-forgotten version of themselves, some unreachable past, or an impossible future. There is an unbearable longing – an ache for something that was or never was – that permeates every page of the collection.

Saudade.

John Green’s Looking for Alaska …

After having read (and loved) The Fault in Our Stars, I decided to read his earlier novel, Looking for Alaska. Admittedly, I was expecting it to deal with similar questions about life, death, and what it all means (no spoiler alerts here, so read on, dear reader), so the emotional impact of the novel was perhaps softened by my anticipation and previous experience with Green’s writing. Even still, I found that there were quite a few of unexpectedly lovely moments in the book where the lead character, Miles Halter (aka Pudge) or the novel’s namesake Alaska Young, make some profoundly simple statements about loving and the human condition. A few of my favorites:

If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

We need never be hopeless because we can never be irreparably broken.

Everything that comes together falls apart.

Aside from Green’s skill in creating a clear voice for every character, the structure of the plot is quite clever. The book is divided into two sections – a before and an after. Each section is comprised of a series of scenes, each of which are titled in reference to the number of days before or after the central event of the book. The climax, occurs in the middle of the story, and happens off the page. That is, we only learn of the climactic moment in the story by seeing the effects it has on each of the characters.

As with The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska is written for the young adult reader. However, it was engaging enough to reach more a mature audience as well. In fact, I think that one of Green’s strengths as a writer is the way that he is able to appeal to a wide range of ages. Some of the more mature subjects in the book related to relationships, sex, addiction – while no doubt relevant to many young readers – certainly help give the book wider appeal beyond its intended audience.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro …

It’s been said that Alice Munro’s writing reduces complex storytelling to its most essential elements. There is no excess in her work; every word, every description is intentional. Dear Life, her 2012 short story collection about ordinary lives, celebrates what Munro does best: purposeful elegance. Take, for example, these crystallizing moments:

               So still, so immense an enchantment.

               Nothing changes really about love.

               A relief out of all proportion, to remember her.

Although certain themes run throughout the book – the desire for human connection, a waiting for life to begin, a restlessness, an inability to change the past, ineffable fear (life, in other words) – there is a distinct shift in the narrative cadence of the collection. Unlike traditional short story collections that have a clear emotional arc across the individual works, Munro’s suite defies conventional expectations about structure. That is, Dear Life is composed of ten short stories followed by a coda of four semi-autobiographical stories. In some ways, the first ten stories appear to be a crescendo leading up to the last four works in the book, which Munro describes as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” It is here, in these quasi-confessional stories, where I think the reader experiences the most transcendent and universally human moments in the collection, such as the experience of loss, an ineffable restlessness, complicated love, and ultimately, forgiveness of ourselves and others.

As I write this now, I can’t help but think that these autobiographical works read as though they were distilled from the earlier stories in the collection. And perhaps, just maybe, this is what Munro is striving for here. That life, that memory, is in some ways a story that we write for ourselves. And sometimes, in the act of remembering, we create art. And so it goes, round and round: the fiction of memory and the memory of fiction. Life.

Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat …

…is as luminous and lyrical as its title suggests.

In what can only be described as Dickensian storytelling, Danticat masterfully weaves together the lives of a young girl named Claire, her mother, her father, her adoptive mother, and various individuals in the seaside community of Ville Rose, Haiti. This tapestry of overlapping storylines moving backwards and forwards through time is one of the ways in which Danticat’s writing reflects the central motif of the novel: the sea itself.

Throughout the novel, the sea is ever present, a constant reminder of the characters’ isolation and boundless hope. The sea itself is a contradiction. It is capable of great destruction and sparkling possibilities. As Danticat so delicately illustrates, this great contradiction is emblematic of life itself. Birth and death, loss and fortune, stagnation and renewal, are intertwined.

Like the sea, Danticat’s writing has a remarkable aural quality. Sound is reflected on the page as Danticat phonetically spells out the sounds of Créole for the reader (“di mwen” [dit-moi, tell me], “chèche lavi” [chércher la vie, to look for life]. And Danticat’s narration across each of the novel’s vignettes, which often border the real and imagined, comes across as fables, passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation.  The circular, breath-like quality of the novel and the way in which the lives of the characters allude back to one another refers to this continuity, like waves in the sea…

Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness

Ah, there are certainly some poetic pauses throughout this book. Some, even breathtaking:

…my heart like a pendulum, swinging between hope and fear.

The scent of the flowers lingers for a few days as though waiting for an answer. 

He would…thread his life through the loops and hollows of her name.

No doubt Van Booy’s elegance as a storyteller lies in his ability to translate complexity into something sleeker, cleaner. At times though, the storytelling was a bit too neat, at least for my own sensibility. Life is messy, and random, and at times, gloriously byzantine. O time! Thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to untie!—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

Indeed, a central theme throughout the work is the idea that our lives “cross like strings.” To this end, Van Booy’s narrative choices reinforce the idea of life’s inherent chaos. The story is ultimately told from the first person perspective of Amelia, a war veteran’s blind granddaughter who is designing a museum exhibit for the blind on lost photographs from World War II. However, in the storytelling, every chapter shifts to a pivotal moment in the life of another character, whose life in some way touches the shore of another character, and so on and so forth, shifting between cultures and across the space-time continuum. This modulation in perspectives in one way makes connecting the dots between the storylines somewhat arduous for the reader, and disjointed from a storytelling angle.

Without completely giving away the ending, mes chers lecteurs, I will say that the stories are inevitably knitted together in a predictable resolution. I suppose you could say it is a satisfying ending, but I wanted more. As a brilliantly talented writing teacher of mine once said, endings should do one of two things: (1) close the story down (which this book certainly does, and does it very well), or (2) crack it wide open. Me, I’d rather break it wide open, shattering it unto a world of endless possibilities. Why then the world’s mine oyster/Which I with sword will open.—William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things

Seeing as this exquisite book is a curated collection of letters to Dear Sugar (aka the wildly talented Cheryl Strayed), I thought it fitting to write my review in the form of a letter, too.  Alors…

Dear Sugar,

There is nothing tiny and everything beautiful about this book.

Each letter is written to you as though it were a message in a bottle tossed far out into the sea. And yet, dear Sugar, you always find the writer in the midst of his or her own bewilderment. Even though the question askers often pose quite specific dilemmas for you to untangle, you have an extraordinary ability to find the most universal question at the heart of each question. And in the end, there is invariably only one simple truth: that in the asking, there is the answer. That you, dear questioner, already know what to do. 

What I love best about every reply in this collection, aside from your belief in every person asking a question of you, of the universe, of themselves, is how the letters spiral into the truth. Yours is the kind of writing that gives me chills – it is unvarnished and yet dazzling, head-spinning prose. 

Your words are, in a word, luminous.

Yours,

SB

No one belongs here more than you. Stories by Miranda July. 

What I admire most about this eccentric collection of stories is Miranda July’s extraordinary ability to marry contradictions on every level of storytelling. Her narrative voice is equal parts daring and vulnerable. The tone is simultaneously dark and witty. The themes that are threaded across the collection are both serious and buoyantly light.

Despite these tensions, each of the stories coalesces around a single refrain. At the heart of each narrative is a desire for human connection, a longing to be seen, a wanting to build a bridge to the other. The collection comes to a fireworks finale with the last three stories (my personal favorites in the collection): Mon Plaisir (about a couple who decide to be extras in a movie where they pretend to be a couple in love and come to realize that they are desperately unhappy together in real life), Birthmark (about a woman who removes a birthmark from her face, only to be haunted by its absence and have it return years later), and How to Tell Stories to Children (about a woman who devotedly takes care of her former lover’s daughter).

For me, though, and I say this as humbly and lovingly as possible, the stories collectively read as the retelling of a single story. There is little variation in narrative voice. Out of the 16 stories in the collection, nearly all of them are told from the first person perspective. In fact, the narrator in nearly every story could be described in the same way: desperately lonely, helpless, misunderstood, wandering. A broken bird. A lost soul.

Furthermore, while this undercurrent of melancholy certainly lends a degree of cohesion to the collection, I found the characters’ lack of agency frustrating. Out of necessity, short stories are character-driven. There simply isn’t the time or space for characters to be passive in the telling – or living – of their fictional lives. It is the characters’ actions that propel a short story forward. It is not enough to hope. It is never enough.

And yet….

In this collection, each of the stories is constructed around the negative space – a supermassive black hole of desire – in the characters’ lives.

And somehow, it works.