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There's an image in Marisha Pessl's new novel, Night Film (available today), that I haven't been able to shake. It arrives on page 148, and it's not the result of any extra-descriptive prose, though there's plenty of that to be found in the 36-year-old writer's second novel—in fact, there aren't any words at all. It's a full-page photograph of a young woman sitting on a public bench, staring at you. It's hypnotic and haunting. On the page prior, the novel's protagonist, investigative reporter Scott McGrath, describe the photo: "Her eyes, hollowed by dark circles, seemed to fasten onto me." No kidding.
The "her" is the late Ashley Cordova, the mentally troubled daughter of the enigmatic, reclusive horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. Her recent suicide has McGrath on the hunt for answers, particularly to the question, "Where the hell is Stanislas Cordova?" The aforementioned photo of Ashley is just one of the many clues McGrath uncovers during Night Film, an addictive, twisty, often creepy book that's part literary novel and part multimedia experience. Interspersed thoughout the prose narrative are highly detailed, intensely imaginative faux documents, Web site pages, magazine Q&As, message board postings, and elaborately staged photographs, like that one of Ashley Cordova, or whoever the hell the actress is Pessl hired to play her part.
Looking at that image, it's easy to start believing in Ashley, that she's real and really dead. Like Scott, McGrath, you, the reader, becomes afflicted by regular thoughts and dreams of the deceased. Especially once you learn about her violent, evil streak in life, which came to light when she set a man on fire, broke free from a mental institution, and became a conduit for…actually, let's save those revelations for Night Film's future readers to discover.
That's the power of Night Film—the mysteries fester in the mind. It's a piece of clever, engrossing fiction, written by a playful author who's not afraid to mix elegant storytelling with plucky wordplay and unabashed genre subversion. Pessl established her reputation with her 2006 debut novel, the critically acclaimed and hugely popular Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Pessl's follow-up, however, is far more ambitious, a rapidly paced literary noir that should be catnip for lovers of fiction about obsessive investigations into the dark, unnerving unknown. If you've read and enjoyed page-turners like Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, Theodore Roszak's Flicker, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, Night Film will become your new favorite. Publishers are banking on it, too. You can tell from the progressive pre-release marketing campaign, comprised of "unearthed and rare" screen-test footage from auditions for Cordova's movies, other intriguing video components, and some badass (fake) movie posters for Cordova films.
On the page, Pessl has gone to great lengths to create a full-bodied, Stanley Kubrick-inspired shadow figure of a director in Stanislas Cordova, right down to lengthy descriptions of make-believe movies with titles like Chasing the Red, At Night All Birds Are Black, and Figures Bathed in Light , all of which would fit right at home on the "giallo" section of a mom-and-pop DVD shop alongside Dario Argento's work.
As McGrath gets dangerously closer to the truth about Cordova's whereabouts and potentially supernatural abilities, Night Film dives into Satanism, possession, and witchcraft. Whether those subjects are ultimately real or fake is the driving force behind the novel's latter half, and, to be frank, not all of the numerous answers and resolutions are completely satisfying. The problem being, Pessl's got a weak spot as a writer: She's not the best at describing or efficiently pacing action sequences. Near Night Film's end, there's an overlong, drawn-out set-piece where McGrath breaks into Cordova's compound, where he filmed most of his movies, and it's weakened by Pessl's inability to sustain tension through physical objects—she's a master when it comes to creating unease via the unseen, the quiet, and the pieced-together could-it-be's. Everything that precedes it is magic on par with Harry Houdini; the the compound-set action section is that old Fox TV show Breaking the Magician's Code, and just as disappointing.
It's a good thing, then, that by that point in Night Film, Pessl has developed her characters outside of the Cordova family so well, and with such a strong, beating heart, that any final act slip-ups aren't deal-breakers. In his tireless, borderline obsessive investigation, the hard-edged but deep-down warmhearted McGrath is joined by a pair of endearing sidekicks: Nora Halliday, a beautiful, much younger lost soul who's in need of a father figure, and Hopper, a strapping, mostly humorless drug dealer who's got even deeper motives as to why he wants to figure out the Cordova puzzle once and for all. Pessl handles the threesome's dynamic with a sweet aplomb; even when they're bickering, it's obvious that there's a three-way affinity at play. The author is in fine form when connecting McGrath with Halliday, a vulnerable softie whom he sees as someone to protect but who sees him through more romantic eyes:
Nora: "I love you. And not as a friend or a boss, but real love. I’ve known it for 24 hours."
McGrath: “Sounds like a stomach bug that will pass.”
Capable of writing dialogue exchanges like that, of which there are many in Night Film, Pessl crafts her way through smart, tender characterization with enviable skill. A strange deterrent that's rampantly used all over the novel, though, is an unnecessary reliance on italicized words, seemingly meant to emphasize words but coming off as a dumbed-down attempts to make sure her readers are still paying attention. It's as if Pessl's unaware that characters like McGrath and Nora, as well as the underlying question marks surrounding Stanislas Cordova's macabre off-screen existence, are as enrapturing as they are, making her force importance into exposition—how else to explain the use of itals in a sentence like, "It's been a long day, to say the least," or, "She looked calm now and oddly lucid, clutching the bottle like a swaddled child in her arms"?
But, then again, those pointlessly italicized words aren't stopping me from wanting to read Night Film again, sooner rather than later. They're not why I haven't been able to start a new fiction book since I finished Pessl's Stanislas Cordova puzzler; it's because, like Scott McGrath, I haven't been able to get the filmmaker's mystique out of my head, nor have I been able to detach my feelings from rooting for McGrath and Nora to succeed in their pursuit.
Those aren't italicized words that keep slithering into my thoughts when I close my eyes at night—it's that disturbing image of a person's head wrapped inside a tied-up plastic bag, in what appears to be suffocation, above the message board line, "What happens to you when watch a Cordova film." And the real-looking picture that follows it, of a guy pressing his hands against a car's window, much like the "graveyard zombie" in the opening scene of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), only he's still breathing and missing halves of two fingers. And it's that photograph of who's supposed to be Ashley Cordova, but who might as well be an angel of death.
See, she's got your eye now, too, doesn't she? Just keep reminding yourself, "She's only a character in a book. She's only a character in a book. She's only a character in a…"
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)