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My Lightning People Review From The Digital Americana I Do Not Think They Used

Lightning People is by far one of the more unique and interesting reads I’ve stumbled across in recent memory. The book represents the first tentative footing for novelist Christopher Bollen, the editor of Interview magazine as well as a respected freelance writer. 

He’s off to a good start, it seems!

Maybe Lightning People resounded with me a lot more than it might for some others because of the back-story Bollen has put into his fictional work, one taken from his own life, as many writers do.

Being:  Bollen is not a New York native, despite becoming a fixture on the scene, he’s actually a Midwesterner. Like the protagonist of the novel, a struggling actor named Joseph trying to outlive a family curse. They both claim Ohio as their homes (I claim Pennsylvania, so that struck a chord with me). New York, in the days post 9/11, has become both their adopted homes.

Speaking via email, I told him the book reads like an “odd love letter” to the city. Apparently, I was not alone with that judgment.

“It’s funny; friends of mine who have read the novel either say it’s a love letter to New York or a big FU to it. To be honest, I think it’s a little of both,” Bollen stated.

“When you live in New York long enough, the city becomes something of a sibling,” he went on. “You can attack it all you want but as soon as someone else says a single word against it you’re ready to defend it with your life.”

This is an attitude shared by the chief characters of the book, all who have varying takes on the city. William, perhaps the “antagonist” of the book (if it’s not the lightning itself- explained later), goes off on a tirade about the city during an episode fueled by drugs. He makes his ultimate plan to “escape,” but because of an accident that happens when he steals his friend’s car and makes his getaway, William gets sucked back into city limits. 

Bollen himself made the big move to NYC in 1996, in the days before the whirlwind of 9/11 changes. He started writing Lightning People, which is based on the theory that the amount of lightning-related deaths in the city increased as a result of the Twin Towers falling (which previously worked as massive ‘lightning rods’ of sorts). He said his mindset, at inception, was “defeated and burnt out.”

“The characters in Lightning People come right up against the hard, cold, jagged sides of the city, and while I wanted each one of them to beat the city, ultimately New York beat them. I mean it quite literally beats many of the characters up in the book—almost all of them are broken one way or another… but of course New York City is still the best place on earth, so it’s hard not to find an admiration for it even in all of the depravity. Honestly, I couldn’t have placed so many different, disparate characters in the same close orbit anywhere else on the planet,” he wrote of how the characters he wrote somewhat reflect this concept. 

Could the best place on Earth really be this divisive? I think so.

Mr. Bollen strayed from calling the novel “autobiographical” per se. For Bollen, a better term might be “parallel.”

 “I really tried to make the New York I portrayed one that I thought honestly synched with the one going on outside my window for the last decade,” he said on this matter.

While reading Lightning People, I was impressed to see that Bollen- really a startling literary voice to behold- make all his characters distinctly human. You can’t dislike a single one, because you see them for all their flaws, as well as positive characteristics, which make them somehow morbidly beautiful. Like William, for example, who I wanted desperately to hate but just wasn’t able to. 

That being said, there are a few deaths within the book’s context. It’s always been fascinating to hear the logic a writer has for killing off a character, for me at least.

“In so many ways it’s almost like losing a loved one,” he said of this. 

“As a writer you work so hard to build a believable, interesting, fully formed character onto the page and you live with these imaginary creations for so long you become very fond of them. So seeing them die—or worse, actively killing them off by your own hands—is embarrassingly emotional. In fact one of the characters who die in Lightning People may very well be my favorite.”

And when the character(s) dies, you feel it. The faces of Lightning People get under your skin, easily. 

So what about happy endings? Bollen “distrusts them.” The novel does not end on a chipper note; not an overly grim note, either. It simply leaves you feel entrapped by the way things are. There are events and circumstances we cannot escape from, no matter how much we try.

Then, there’s the whole electricity aspect. Why electricity as a uniting theme?

“I guess with the title that includes the word lightning it was bound to come into play. But I think electricity really became this force of attraction and collectivity in civilization. New York is one tiny island of light and it’s that same novelty of immense power that brings the main character’s ancestors to see the Tower of Light at the 1901 World’s Fair. I like the idea of this invisible juice running through our walls that basically connects us to the world, but also at any moment the plug could be pulled. We don’t own it, most of us don’t even know where it comes from or how it’s generated,” Bollen replied to this inquiry (I certainly don’t understand it).

“But for some reason New York as a city (of so many residents who pretty much own nothing, no property, and no land) seems almost to have dominated the world simply by its amount of light and electricity. That’s a rather strange substance to be the master of.”
Lightning People travels through time and resonates with the reader long after the first go-through. 

Even if the reader is left with some questions on the ending, it’ll be hard to shake any of the characters, or the echoes of Bollen’s strong narrative voice, for some time, whether you live in New York, Nebraska or the Netherlands.


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