You can’t set a novel in New York without the reverberations of 9/11 in some way shaking the story. Ten years later, the stunned and fearful silence has settled into something else, which Christopher Bollen set out to capture in his debut novel, Lightning People. This ambitious novel, thick with detail and plot, paints New York through five main characters, transplanted 30-somethings in Manhattan, where from May and June lightning came without rain, and people would “climb up to the rooftops as ritual to watch them roll in from the west, feeling momentarily connected to the cereal-grain prairies and humid river valleys that we had worked so desperately to escape.”
In the preface, which establishes the novel’s atmosphere and tone, we learn that soon the lightning begins to kill—mostly Midwesterners gazing from their rooftops at the brilliant show. Joseph, a TV-commercial actor, has a theory: now that the two towers are gone, “we have taken their place, little conductors in our tight jeans and unwashed t-shirt, easy targets in a city that was supposed to hide us.” Gone are the dreams, desires and optimism; these characters are just trying to survive. Joseph thinks, “New Yorkers had a reputation for being hard-skinned survivalists but were perhaps the least equipped with survival instincts of any lot in human history.”
Joseph, who left Cinncinatti when he was eighteen and came to New York, was in the city on September 11th, living on East 3rd Street. His downstairs neighbor’s dog, spooked by the World Trade Center catastrophe, ran away. “For weeks, Joseph could hear his neighbor calling in the street for her dog.” This neighbor died eight months later. “The firefighters broke down her door and discovered every item in her slovenly one bedroom was pinned with a tag that read, “if found, please call Eileen Kowalski at 212-969-8704. Have a wonderful day.”
It’s a perfect image for the main thread of connection—or the lack thereof—that weaves through these characters’ intersecting lives and provides cohesion for what sometimes feels like a sprawling narrative.
At the beginning of the novel, Joseph marries Delphine Kousavos, a Greek who immigrant who works with the snakes at the Bronx Zoo. A waste of her knowledge and talents, Delphine resents her work, her boss, and often her new husband. Throughout she feels the tug of her former lover, Raj. Joseph, too, is pulled into worlds other than the domestic. He secretly attends prisonerofearth.com meetings where members spin their conspiracy theories. He’s drawn not to the theories, but to his upbringing—growing up, his mother was enmeshed in the conspiracy world. Bollen adds tension to Joseph’s story by including another connection to his past: Joseph is concerned he might have inherited the familial curse of dying at age thirty-four of heart failure.
William, a failed actor and friend of Joseph’s, also seeks connection, but in toxic ways that eventually lead to multiple murders, moving the novel into darker territory and giving the book its plot-heaviness and unfortunate reliance on coincidence. When he decides it’s time to leave New York, William, with his overblown, injured ego, throws himself a party, charging his friends money—“It’s a charity event: Help William Asternathy Get to California. Sounds fun, right? It’s a hundred dollars a head and if you can’t find it in your heart to pay, then fuck you. Beer will be complimentary, of course.” William is an exercise in devolvement, a spiral downwards that adds tension to the book—you don’t know where he’ll land. At the same time, he is the most one-dimensional character. I don’t want to give away what happens to William, but Bollen makes the wise choice of not opting for the obvious.
By the end, Bollen has successfully managed all five character arcs and painted a picture of post-9/11 New York City as a place that people want to escape. “Soon he [Joseph] wouldn’t be here anymore, he’d be gone, way east or west, farther away than he had ever been in his life, a tropical island he couldn’t locate on a globe.”