Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

by Orual✭✭✭✭✩

Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film (out 08/20/13), is a creeping, cinematic work of literary fiction that is at once more accessible than House of Leaves and more disciplined than Gone Girl.

Scott McGrath was a well-respected investigative journalist until he broke the cardinal rule of journalism and went public without the facts. The victim of his slander was the very private cult film director Stanislas Cordova, who promptly sued McGrath into ignominy. But that was five years ago, and McGrath has just gotten word that Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, has thrown herself down an elevator shaft. McGrath is determined to discover the truth about Cordova and his daughter (or is he just addicted to the chase?), and his pursuit is bound to take him some very dark places indeed.

That is the setup for this complex puzzle of a book, and to give away anything more would damage Night Film‘s effect. So it’s a bit of a difficult book to review.

The first few hundred pages excellently set the stage, planting uncanny seeds about the nature of Cordova the man and his rather disturbing films (reminding me of Cronenberg, Lynch, and von Trier). The tension builds steadily as McGrath begins to piece together Ashley Cordova’s life and final few days. In fact, this book starts so well and with such an intriguing premise and character in Cordova that any way the story developed – and any big revelation – was bound to be a little disappointing. And it’s true, I felt myself being let down the further on I read, though it did end as well as it probably could.

McGrath as a character seems to have little inner life, and the other main characters aren’t much better. I had no feelings, positive or negative, about them and thus didn’t care too strongly about their physical well-being (I was only in it for the Truth). Because of this, I don’t think this book will have any lasting emotional effect on me (though Cordova may haunt my dreams). I found Pessl’s overuse of italics incredibly irritating and rather perplexing. Due to its extensive featuring of modern technology, Night Film is timely but probably not timeless. And I’m not convinced that the book really earns its 600 pages.

So it’s not without flaws. But it’s intelligent, frequently chilling, well-crafted, and very film literate. The time that Pessl put into it is evident. Perhaps it’s best to use the novel’s own words in summation: Night Film is sovereign (in its genre), deadly (seeming), (im)perfect.

Note:  The publisher provided me with an early copy for review.