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Joseph Guiteau is a working actor who moved to New York to escape a tragic family history in the Midwest. Wandering through a city transformed by the attacks of September 2001, he frequents gatherings of conspiracy groups, trying to make sense of world events and his own personal history. Looming over his life is a secret that threatens to undermine his new marriage to Del, a snake expert at a city park, whose work visa is the only thread keeping her from deportation back to her...
Joseph Guiteau is a working actor who moved to New York to escape a tragic family history in the Midwest. Wandering through a city transformed by the attacks of September 2001, he frequents gatherings of conspiracy groups, trying to make sense of world events and his own personal history. Looming over his life is a secret that threatens to undermine his new marriage to Del, a snake expert at a city park, whose work visa is the only thread keeping her from deportation back to her native Greece.
The new marriage influences the lives of those around them: William, a dark and troubled actor whose sanity is fading as quickly as his career, leading him to perform increasingly desperate acts; Madi, a young entrepreneur who will have to face the moral complications of a business made successful by the outsourcing of American jobs to India; and her brother Raj, Del’s former lover, a promising photographer whose work details the empty rooms of an increasingly alienated city.
Christopher Bollen’s first novel captures the atmosphere of anxiety and loss that exists in Manhattan.
Questions for Christopher Bollen
Did you set out to write a "9/11" novel?
No, not in the sense that I set out to capture the madness and sorrow of that event or day. My novel is set in the summer of 2007, six years after 9/11. But I did want to write a novel about New York, and I think it's safe to say that 9/11 does haunt the book just as it haunted the city in the years after the World Trade Center fell. I wanted to describe the city in a way that I wasn't finding in other books or films, which, I thought quite eerily, more often than not, portrayed New York as this safe, glamorous upper-class playground for endless shopping excursions and speed-dating. It seemed to me that the creative minds of our time had internalized President Bush's command that we all go shopping as our response to such a tragedy, and that didn't sit well with me. It wasn't the New York I knew or experienced. I wanted to write about a city that was rife with a soured optimism, a feeling of constant panic and uncertainty, a place that people had come to for maximum dream fulfillment only to find that those dreams had turned very dark. New York is still a hard, tough, dangerous city, where it takes a lot of bruising to survive. I think that has a great deal to do with what happened on 9/11. We were constantly being told something could blow up at any minute and yet we went on living here, trying to move forward as normally as we could. So in a sense, Lightning People is really a story about the consequences of the past decade. But New York has always had both sides of the dime: the hopeful and possible as well as the desperate and unpredictable.
What is it about New York that makes it such a compelling setting for stories?
New York is a character-study paradise. What other city has so many different kinds of people packed so tightly together? It really is a city of émigrés—whether they are coming from the Midwest or from the middle of India—and it always has been. It's Ellis Island with twenty-four-hour public transportation. It's also a street city, which means its citizens are forced to interact everyday without any protection whenever they leave the house. That offers a lot of writerly opportunities that wouldn't necessarily be possible in car towns and suburban sprawls like Cincinnati. I've always appreciated New York's innate geographic abilities to level out classes and kinds. The rich and poor, the old and the young, the new and the long-established not only live in the same neighborhood but often in the same building. That gives the sense that nothing is set or restricted. Writers, whether its Wharton or McInerney, have always seized on this melee. And, let's face it, New York is one of the few places that prizes its living artists. So writers naturally set up shop here. And writers like to write what they see.
Who lives in "your" New York?
The gutter punks who sleep in front of my building with their spotless German Shepherd puppy; the middle-aged brothers from Somalia who pour my coffee at the deli and talk of the blockbuster films they watch at night; the billionaire's son who enters my elevator at work; the artists who are back from a show in Switzerland with sore necks from the red-eye flight and are starting a new series of paintings for another show next month somewhere else in Switzerland; the crack addict playing chess in the park; the photographer who sleeps on friend's sofa which is so much easier now because everything is shot in digital so there are no more fees on film; the college interns with homemade clothes approximating the designer clothes they carry in garment bags through Soho; the crying friends who call about their jobs and loneliness from other offices; the heavy-set man who stands on the corner at night asking for change and then always makes sure to say "god bless" as you pass whether you put a quarter in his empty fast-food cup or not.
Is it important to you that your characters find a sense of redemption? Why or why not?
I'm against happy pat endings. In fact, I'm against endings, since they seem so unreal and artificial. I especially don't like the sense that characters learn some magical, beautiful epiphany in the final pages that makes the reader understand they will be better, happier souls sailing into oblivion after the end of the book. It's actually quite Catholic, the novelist's love of last-minute redemption, so maybe I'm rebelling against all those year at all-boys Jesuit. I think mostly people keep falling into the same patterns, try as they do for a sense of redemption, they end up repeating their behaviors again and again. We're too complex as people to be satisfied by a sudden lightning flash of reason or meaning and then our pasts no longer tear at our arms like little cloying children. But of course growth isn't necessarily redemption, and we can grow. Characters do learn and get wiser and maybe realize themselves a bit more fully, and that, for some characters, is important. Others never do. I have to say I've always secretly liked Jacosta in Oedipus when she begs the king not to dig deeper, that they will be happier if he doesn't search out the truth. He, of course, does and they aren't redeemed but ruined by what he uncovers. That seems entirely more likely in such quests for wisdom: the possibility that what you learn about yourself doesn't necessarily save or rescue you.
Who have you discovered lately?
Two writers I've discovered in the last month are Paula Fox and her hard-as-nails realist novel Desperate Characters, which was published in 1970 and somehow eluded me until now. And I'm halfway through a non-fiction account of journalist Stephen Kinzer's time in Nicaragua during the fall of Somoza, the rise of the Sandinistas, and the Contra war in his epic Blood of Brothers. Kinzer manages to take in the country with such a vast panorama and yet covers the country with so many dazzling details. I'm more than a little jealous that I didn't spend my twenties as a foreign correspondent. Maybe New York counts.
Posted August 23, 2011
I was intrigued when I read the synopsis of this book and decided to pre order a copy. I had high expectations and not only did this book meet those expectations, it exceeded them! Lightning People is by far the best book I've read all year. Lightning People could be called a New York novel but that would be doing it a disservice as it's so much bigger than that. It's an epic, plot driven, character piece that grips you from beginning to end. The central characters - Del, Madi, Joseph, Raj and William - will haunt you for weeks after you finish reading. I still can't help but think of them each day. In fact, I miss them! The plot continuosly twists and turns. It's one of those books that are impossible to put down. It's about paranoia, love, loss, friendship, rattlesnakes, multiculturalism, marriage, green cards, murder.....and that's just part one! I was surprised to see that this was Christopher Bollen's first novel. He really knows how to craft complex characters and place. I live in Tampa and for one week I was completely transported and engulfed by the gritty and seductive streets of New York City. Not only is Bollen a sophisticated writer, he is obviously a great observer of people and life. I really think he has communicated something important about the human condition with this book. I'm excited to see what he does next. It's rare to find a book that is so entertaining and edifying. A MUST READ!
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Posted January 27, 2012
I kept waiting for this book to get better. Maybe I'm out of touch or
maybe I just wasn't getting what the author was trying to convey but if you read this book, be prepared to get depressed. To say that almost all
of the characters in this book are "undirected" is a gift to Bollen. They lie, cheat and steal and even murder with no real consequences other than the frustration of the fruitlessness of their miserable lives. There are no heroes and everyone is incredibly flawed. A bad story well written.
Posted September 19, 2011
Hard to put down. Great characters, with great depth, that you really care about. Bollen's a great writer, hard to believe this is his first novel. I can't wait to see what he does next.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2011
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Posted October 17, 2011
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