The Short Version: In January 2010, a trailblazing young pop star disappeared. Several months later, a young woman drowned in Lake Michigan. Cyrus Archer, a fading academic, begins to draw connections between the two – and this book is his non-fiction account of the connections he found, involving mysterious societies and forgotten architecture.
The Review: I enjoy a good oral history (fictional or otherwise) but a fictional non-fiction piece can be tricky. Especially when you’re presenting it with footnotes and all the associated trappings. On the one hand, if the author actually does the somewhat rigorous work of trying to write like they would a rigorously fact-checked non-fiction piece, the book can succeed in a delightful mind-bending way. On the other hand, if they slip up even once, it can destroy the reader’s faith. So I was understandably wary going in, even if I was intrigued by the setup – and thankfully, the book pulled me under its spell rather quickly. By the end, I was (almost) completely won over.
I think the best way to describe the tone of Archer’s book (and, by extension, Disabato’s) is “Internet longread”: it doesn’t quite hit the academic high-notes of essayists like John Jeremiah Sullivan or journalist-writers like Lawrence Wright but it still has a sense of being well-researched and deeply considered. The footnoted articles and stories are often convincing enough that I even went so far as to search several to see if they were real. And I was honestly, delightfully, stunned to discover that while io9.com has not in fact published a piece called “Chicago’s Never-Built Train System Looks Like a Giant Octopus”… the Situationsts are the real deal. Psychogeography, dérive, Guy Debord… it’s all real. And the book becomes that much more interesting, as suddenly the expected and unexpected begin to switch sides.
Perhaps the least ‘original’ invention in the book is Molly Metropolis. Her story is distinctly Lady Gaga-esque: her outrageous fashion, her humble but driven beginnings, the whole “Eat Pop”/Pop Eaters thing – all of this feels like Gaga circa that second album with a healthy dash of Janelle Monaé’s smarter pop eclecticism thrown in for good measure. It also, although 2010 wasn’t all that long ago, feels like another lifetime in pop culture years – only five years away but long enough now in relative terms that I felt a longing for something like Molly’s unified crazy aesthetic.
Of course, maybe I also just love the idea that a pop star is actually also a big ol’ nerd who wants to discover the secrets of a long-defunct weird-Left society. Don’t really see those around, you know? (Nerdy pop stars or long-defunct weird-Left societies, take your pick.)
Disabato’s novel has all the problems you might expect from a rigorously applied structure – namely that, even clocking in below 300 pages, there are some moments where the plot seems to stall. The writing is smooth and continues to pull you forward, but you get the sense sometimes that instead of actual motion, you’re staying in one place while someone runs scenery by you on a conveyor belt. It’s not often but that feeling is there at times, especially just before the halfway point. I actually think that some of this, however, comes down to Disabato being a really canny storyteller: she’s created, in Cyrus, a fully-formed journalistic narrator who just isn’t a spectacular journalist. When ‘his’ writing falls into one of these lulls or the story seems to jog in place, I found myself nodding approvingly at Disabato. It’d be unrealistic if the story was all action, all excitement, all forward-motion – because the real world doesn’t look like that.
There’s a surprising amount of philosophy and theory in this book, too. Knowing that the Situationists are real gives you some context for what to expect, but Disabato is able to pull over multiple levels of cultural criticism at once: she’s got the actual real-life theory, the middle-aged gay male doing the research, and the young(ish) gang of characters actually involved in the plot. An extensive breakdown of a fictional music video fits in comfortably with a pages-long digression on this or that aspect of Situationist history. It all reads in a comfortable, I-caught-this-article-then-clicked-onto-that-one-and-then-down-the-rabbit-hole sort of vein – a very 21st Century novel without trying to be anything of the sort.
And while I don’t want to give much away about the conspiracy that threads its way through the book, I’ll just say that it was right up my alley. Abandoned architecture, forgotten train lines, and the like are my jam – so I was delighted to see all of that getting equal time with everything else.
At the end of the day, I had a conflicting thought. I deeply enjoyed the sort of ‘true life’ mystery that was playing out in the novel and the way Disabato kept it between the lines on the concept from start to finish – but as the novel ripped towards the conclusion, the concept began to get in the way of the exciting story. There was a non-concept-y version of this tale out there that might’ve been differently enjoyable – it would’ve lacked the real-world grounding but might’ve seemed less abrupt towards the end.
Still, I can’t fault Disabato for the way she wrote the book, because she absolutely nails it on every turn. I was reminded a bit of the ending to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film as I read this, the same shocked sense of wonder and hunger for more. This book doesn’t hit the heights that Night Film does but it doesn’t try to either; it aims for something much simpler and succeeds admirably.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A terrific debut novel, one that fires on all cylinders. Disabato writes with several layers of confidence, presenting a fictional non-fiction book in the guise of a novel. Her desire for plot kicks in with the epilogue, but it does not invalidate that which came before – in fact, the tone changes enough to believe that it is in fact the epilogue to a book written by someone else. That alone should make you want to read it, to see how she pulls that off, but it’s also a terrific read for the 21st Century kid in all of us. Pop music, psychogeography, kinky sex stuff – this book has it all and has fun with all of it.(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – go check it out and give them some love!)