‘Lightning People’ by Christopher Bollen

A fun fact about lightning: a strike lasts for about 30 microseconds.

Lightning People (Soft Skull Press) starts with a similar flash.  The narrator of the prologue, Joseph Guiteau, speaks in conspiratorial terms, suggesting a link between a rise in lightning-related Manhattan-area deaths and the fall of the Twin Towers. Joseph, a transplant from the Midwest and an aspiring actor, finds himself married to a Greek herpetologist, Del, and, possibly, hurtling towards his death.

After the brightness of that flash, the reader comes to expect a storm—dark clouds on the horizon, the wind picking up, a chill in the air. But the first-person narrator disappears, and the subsequent third-person narration jumps from Joseph to his wife; his wife’s best friend, Madi; Madi’s brother, Raj, a photographer; and Joseph’s friend, William. Bollen, an editor for Interview, infuses his characters with empathy and wit, and his capable prose provides plenty of trenchant observations about New York City’s creative class.

But with such a cast of characters, you’d expect lots of sparks. After all, static electricity is created by the friction of two materials rubbing against one another. And even though each character has his or her own concerns (Joseph harbors a Big Secret; Del is torn romantically between Joseph and Raj; Madi, half-South Asian, wrestles with the ethics of making a living outsourcing jobs to India; William has reached his sell-by date as an actor), when they intersect, they don’t create friction. The drama never builds; the characters are insulated from one another by a layer of rubberized self-absorption. The current doesn’t pass between them.

Compounding the lack of drama is the lack of tension. Even the individual choices that the characters make don’t seem to carry consequences. Del, for instance, marries Joseph, in part, for her green card. But what’s at stake if she’s deported? Joseph nearly ruins his marriage over his Big Secret, which, when revealed to his wife, makes her exclaim, “Anything but this bullshit.” The Big Secret, which drives Joseph to attend meetings of conspiracy theory enthusiasts and into the arms of a suspicious woman, is—ready for it?—the fear that he’s going to die at the age of 34.


In a curious move, Bollen illustrates the origins of Joseph’s fear in italicized sections that pretty much announce This part optional. Even as Bollen tries to draw a connection between the natures of conspiracies and of fate—how both involve the examination of random details to suggest a bigger, more sinister picture—he gets too wrapped up in the interiority of the characters. But it isn’t enough: the lack of dramatic tension and forward momentum makes the interiority uninteresting. The characters don’t make static; they are static.

Even after a hit-and-run accident shakes up the scenery (killing off arguably the most interesting character—the only one who faces a moral dilemma), the characters still seem stuck in their ruts. Del continues to vacillate between her two men; Joseph continues to fret about his impending doom. And as the novel finishes up—the resolution of the hit-and-run is particularly obvious—the reader is left sniffing the air: Wasn’t there supposed to be a storm coming? I didn’t even hear any thunder.


Lightning People
By Christopher Bollen
Soft Skull Press
Hardcover, 9781593764197, 404pp
August 2011