Night Film, Marisha Pessl, 2013

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

For the book with 600 pages challenge, I chose the mystery, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. The book benefits from the ingenious use of images alongside text.  Pages of visual materials like fake newspaper and magazine articles, emails, documents and webpages are scattered throughout. It’s like a picture book for adults. It’s enhanced with interactive elements and Easter eggs found on a website that the reader can still access as of the writing of this review.  

Pessl establishes a world that straddles reality and fiction in a fantastic feat of world-bridging.

The author creates a mythic and brilliant director, Stanislav Cordova, whose films are revered by loyal followers and reviled by detractors. Parts Kubrick, Von Trier and Lynch, his work is potent and dangerous and causes viewers to question everything they think they know. His films are difficult to find and eschew mainstream topics. His fans, who call themselves Cordovites, hold red-band screenings, rave-like gatherings in abandoned buildings and tunnels to secretly view his movies, dubbed “night films” some of which are banned because of the disturbing imagery.  

Cordova and his family, as mysterious and reclusive as he is, remain a source of curiosity veiled in myths and urban legends even decades after his public appearance.

While the Cordova family is the subject, the book’s main character is Scott McGrath, a relentless journalist fallen from grace, having chased the shadow of Cordova to his own peril.  Years before, after receiving bad intel, he falsely accused the director on national tv of heinous acts against children. It costs McGrath his reputation, job and marriage. While clawing his way back to decent society, he has a strange encounter with Ashley, Cordova’s twenty-four-year-old daughter in Central Park. She appears like a wraith in red and quickly vanishes. A week later she’s found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. McGrath convinces himself that Ashley’s appearance was an attempt to reach out to him.

McGrath forms a rag tag team with nineteen-year-old Nora, a quirky Florida transplant with a tragic past and Hopper, a man who shares history with Ashley, though he is reluctant to spill the details. Together, they reconstruct a timeline of Ashley’s last few weeks, interviewing anyone who may have had contact with her that can help solve the riddle of her death.

Though interesting, the book isn’t without its flaws. There’s lots of unnecessary info dumping through dialogue, which is just this side of unforgiveable given the copious amounts of supplemental materials included in the book itself and available online.

The main problem is with the enigmatic Cordova family, especially Ashley. She’s yet another ineffable creature, dreamlike, ethereal and unknowable. Her gray eyes (because she couldn’t just have blue) bore into people’s very souls leaving them changed. All the people who’ve looked at her basically give the same gist: piercing eyes, otherworldly stare, she’s haunted, she’s haunting. The reader knows nothing about Ashley because characters can’t explain her. She’s too enigmatic to comprehend or care about.

Sometimes the dialogue and descriptions can be a little cringe-inducing. Characters who shouldn’t have more than a few sentences of dialogue are given pages of backstory and dense monologues and then evaporate. As Pessl allows minor and side characters the time to unfold, they start sounding the same. They fall into a similar poetic cadence, heavy on metaphor and symbolism. The following three lines are said by three different characters, all different ages from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“She looked so familiar…Like a tune you suddenly recall from childhood and yet you can’t remember the lyrics or really anything beyond a handful of mysterious notes.”

“I’d long given up my actress dreams, dreams of fame, which I understood was nothing more than consigning oneself to a cheap carnival where one lives forever in a cage, applauded and ridiculed by equal measure.”

“To know her then not…is like serving a life sentence. You see everything at a distance, through thick glass and telephones and visiting hours.”

At 600+ pages, Night Film is a commitment, for sure, but I think most readers will know early on if this is a book they want to see through to the end.

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