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.

The Shape of Things

In an interview with the Paris Review earlier this year, the enigmatic Elena Ferrante said:

I don’t think anyone really knows how a story takes shape. When it’s done you try to explain how it happened, but every effort, at least in my case, is insufficient. There is a before, made up of fragments of memory, and an after, when the story begins. …You know how when you have in your head a few notes of a tune but you don’t know what it is, and if you hum it, it ends up becoming a different song from the one that’s nagging at you? Or when you remember a street corner but you can’t remember where it is? That kind of thing. My mother liked to use the word frantumaglia—bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, as I recently started a new writing project. As with any new venture, beginning anew is exciting, daunting, overwhelming at times. You need a plan, surely. But also need to leave room for mystery, for opportunities to present themselves to you. As I’m discovering, a story takes shapes in bursts, some born in moments of inspiration, but the vast majority of them in work. Piece by piece the picture will come together, like a kaleidoscopic pattern made up of disparate colors and forms that only make sense once they’ve been taken apart and put back together. The shape of things will reveal itself in time.

Frantumaglia. What a perfect word.

On the Photographic Life

In photography, the Kodak moment doesn’t just happen. The light doesn’t just fall in that heartbreaking way that reminds you of some long-forgotten moment shaken out of the cobwebs of your memory. Oh, no. It is not luck. The moment is created out of love and labor (and much of love’s labor’s lost). And in order to capture it, you have to take many, many, many crap shots.

Life is like this. #truestory

The key to the art of life — as in the art of photography — is repetition. In living color, every day is just another click of the shutter, another exposure that will come to light only in the dark. It is drafting, and revising, and rearranging, and reexamining. Every photograph, every life, is trial and error. It is the being undone and then put back together, sometimes into arrestingly beautiful new configurations. If something is not working for us — the light, the shadows, the noise — we change our perspective. We choose our light. We create our own luck.

And how do we do this?

There are an infinite number of ways. We wait. We return day after day to the same place. We sweat it out. We are still. We leave. We change our lens. We are willing to look like a fool to get the angle that no one else noticed. And if that doesn’t work, we just throw away the whole damn thing, and start over. We bring light to the present moment. We look up. We pay attention. We are patient. Above all things, yes, we are patient. And we find the moment.

We always do.


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?


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.


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.