Book Review: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night Film“For every man there exists bait he cannot resist swallowing.”

I started this book on the subway en route to work one morning. I almost missed my stop. That is something that hasn’t happened to me in far too long. It’s an exhilarating sensation, to get so caught up in a book that everything around you fades away. Night Film‘s prologue is ominous and vaguely unsettling without actually featuring any violence or blood. It had me so excited to keep reading that I boldly declared in my summer reading list that this could be 2013’s Gone Girl.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last. Night Film is at its best in the first hundred pages, when everything is full of foreboding shadows and the truth is murky and threatening. I’d say that this is due to the fact that the truth is always less interesting than any horrors your imagination can cook up, but the problem with this book begins long before we start getting to the answers. It really came down to weak protagonists.

Scott McGrath used to be a celebrated journalist, but now he’s a disgraced outcast in the media. While investigating a famously reclusive director named Stanislas Cordova (think Alfred Hitchcock crossed with Stanley Kubrick with more than a few dashes of Charles Manson), he got a mysterious tip about nefarious deeds committed at the director’s isolated mansion. Hours later he repeated the tip during a TV appearance and in no time at all found himself on the losing side of a libel case and persona non grata among news outlets. Years later, McGrath thinks he has a shot at redemption when Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, is found dead of an apparent suicide at age 24. McGrath thinks something more sinister is going on, and nothing is going to stop him from bringing the truth about Cordova to light this time. He believes that his intentions are noble, but the truth is that the opportunity to get back at the man he blames for his downfall is just too good to pass up.

Cordova’s brutal films plum the depths of humanity in a relentless quest to enlighten and be enlightened in turn. They rarely provide satisfactory answers, preferring to be left open to interpretation, for the ways in which a viewer interprets what he/she is shown are far more revealing in the end. Cordova’s famous reclusiveness (he makes J.D. Salinger look like a social butterfly) only deepens the public’s fascination with him. Speculation about who he is, where he comes from, etc. runs rampant–especially in the online age. His devoted legions of fans have taken to the underground after his films became largely banned in the 90s (after a deranged fan began to copy the methods of a killer in one of his movies)–holding secret screenings in abandoned tunnels, subway stations, etc. The truly devoted rally behind a quote of Cordova’s (“Sovereign, deadly, perfect”) and form an online community that is notoriously difficult to access–a place where they can be themselves without fear or judgment, where nothing is taboo and there are no limits. Actors from Cordova’s films fiercely protect the secrets of their director and the process of making his art, emerging from the experience changed somehow (damaged?). He may even have ties to black magic. To uncover the truth about Cordova, McGrath must infiltrate this society and uncover clues no one else has been able to solve.

Pretty great premise, right? Too bad it turns out McGrath is more Inspector Clouseau than Sam Spade. Pessl tries to explain this early by having McGrath note that he’s gotten rusty after years in exile, but really, it hasn’t been that long. He basically pratfalls his way through his leads and somehow manages to stumble upon a clue that gets him to the next one, and so on. It doesn’t help that by the end of the first hundred pages he’s saddled himself with two overly quirky assistants because … well, it never really makes sense why he lets them into his investigation. Or trusts them so completely without even knowing anything about them. There’s Hopper, the morose slacker and ne’er-do-well with oddly suicidal tendencies that no one in the book seems to worry about, who met Ashley at a rehab camp for troubled teens years earlier. Then there’s Nora, a penniless aspiring actress who dresses like a drag queen. The three of them combined have all the tact of an especially clumsy elephant trying to navigate the high-wire while drunk. Hopper because he’s too impulsive and heedless of danger. Nora because she’s spacey and sentimental. McGrath because … I don’t know, maybe Pessl thought that if he was too good at figuring things out it would undermine the mysteries Cordova represents. There had to have been a middle ground.

The more McGrath, Hopper, and Nora bumble through the clues the harder it became for me to press on reading this book. It’s such a shame. There was so much promise in the beginning. Pessl seems like a very sharp writer but she made some curious decisions here. I’d still be curious to read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel (which was one of The New York Times‘ top 10 books of 2006), but this outing ended in disappointment.

The inclusion of news articles, photos, clippings, and “web pages” makes for an interesting layout. My complaint there is that the images look oddly photoshopped in some places, and photos of the characters involved are borderline cartoonish. The character shots in a game of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? are more subtle than this. It also feels a little ham-handed to have the book working so hard to illustrate moods that Pessl’s writing was sufficient to get across in the first place. Jennifer Egan used tricks like this much better in A Visit From the Goon Squad.

Hang on, guys, I think her head is about to spin around.
Hang on, guys, I think her head is about to spin around.

I’m being mean to the photos, I know, but given the overall let-down that I feel about this book I think it’s justified. Also, it’s hard not to be mean when the book almost intentionally makes them seem absurd. Pessl makes it very clear that Ashley spent her last days wandering around mysteriously, looking dark and troubled and (maybe) suffering from some kind of dark magic, then the book decides to beat you over the head with a photo Nora finds, just in case you missed it.

Do you see what I mean?

Pessl is undoubtedly a good writer, but Night Film has some serious flaws. It starts strong, gets lost in genre tropes, and ultimately limps across the finish line a pale imitation of what it set out to be.

Grade: C

PS As per my mission statement, I am obligated to tell you that I received an ARC of this book via Amazon’s Vine program.


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