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“The Ghost Network”: a novel by Catie Disabato (Melville House Books, 2015).

“The Ghost Network,” a first novel by Flossmoor native Catie Disabato, is a wild ride mashup of fantasy, mystery, pop culture send-up and social commentary. The primary mystery concerns the disappearance of an international celebrity, but there is much more to this dense and tightly raveled tale.

Disabato spins a web of scholars, celebrities and secret society denizens who compete with one another to create new worlds and discover each other’s secrets. Creating a clever story within a story, she presents the book as having been researched by a scholar, Cyrus Archer, and the manuscript edited by “Catie Disabato,” with scattered footnotes that reference Archer’s research and commentary by “CD.” 

This conceit drives a documentary-style truth-is-stranger-than-fiction vibe and showcases a lovingly gritty and glittery Chicago setting.

The Ghost Network of the title, an elaborate map of real and fictitious, proposed and abandoned CTA stations and routes, leads to a hidden city masked by the system and guarded by a cult of philosophers.

At the center of the story is pop superstar Molly Metropolis, along with her entourage of current and former friends, lovers, employees and associates. When Molly disappears on the brink of a concert tour, her record company is stunned to find her multi-million-dollar career dramatically interrupted. She has vanished into thin air, but there are hints at a connection to a complex and intellectual hobby at odds with her pop star persona.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned entourage members have many theories and questions to test and uncover. Working in groups, pairs, and singly under the banner of competing philosophies, no one seems to have enough information on their own, and their feuds and mistrust prevent the various factions from sharing enough to piece the clues together. Molly’s music is an almost palpable soundtrack, emitting clues and fanning Disabato’s flaming milieu of devoted fans and social media noise.

Key among Molly’s constellation is a trio of well-drawn main characters: journalist Caitlin Taer, personal assistant Regina Nix and comrade Nick Berliner. Using these strong and distinctive protagonists to drive the action, Disabato deepens what could have been a well-crafted mystery novel into something more, something thought provoking and memorable. The author asks readers to consider what fame and youthful ambition mean in our current plugged-in, self-involved society, what modern utopia might look like, and the limits of romance, friendship, trust and idealism.

Disabato, a Homewood-Flossmoor High School and Oberlin College graduate, now resides in Los Angeles and works as a journalist. Her hometown roots are evident in this novel’s Chicago setting, from choppy Lake Michigan to dank El stations. Locals will find her Chicago lore, both real and made-up, and even a few subtle Flossmoor references, a strong backdrop to this thoroughly of-the-moment and original tale.

Deborah Robertson lives in Flossmoor and works in publishing.

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