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By Marisha Pessl. Random House. 624 pages. $28
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Marisha Pessl’s newest novel — after a wait of seven years — is “Night Film.” In the novel, a hard-bitten investigative reporter, Scott McGrath, investigates the suspicious apparent suicide of a young woman, Ashley Cordova. What propels the novel along is that Ashley Cordova is the daughter of world famous horror film director Stanislaus Cordova, whose films are so grotesque and mind-bending that they either repel viewers or preternaturally draw them into a sort of cult.
This is pretty much all of the plot — basically the first 50 pages — that can be discussed here, as “Night Film” has numerous twists and turns that wickedly fold in on themselves.
What is so interesting about this work is that this is, on the surface, a transparently obvious thriller plot, but Pessl’s confidence and style set it apart. Her writing crackles and snaps like electricity on each page, and it’s easy to get lost in her sly use of metaphors and nearly forget to pay attention to the plot.
Even so, “Night Film” does have its flaws: The introduction of two characters who function as McGrath’s supposed sidekicks is an unusual choice, and more often than not, they seem to exist solely to find clues conveniently, cause trouble inconveniently, or to bounce ideas off McGrath.
Their characterization is relatively deep, and they have their own surprises, but their existence is sometimes almost too convenient. Early in the novel, the trio go to a mental rehabilitation facility to further their investigation. One of the characters gets in trouble, causing them to get kicked out of the facility. The other? He’s passed out in the back seat the entire time, only to wake, really, when he’s needed again.
These sort of conveniences pepper the narrative: Just when the group is about to hit a dead end in the investigation, someone comes running (sometimes literally) to give them the next clue. Readers expecting this to twist into the cult’s fanaticism — and the director’s desire for revenge on McGrath due to an old feud — will be disappointed.
Pessl even makes the classic mistake of relieving the viewer’s dread by putting the horror, at one point in the novel, front and center, rather than keeping it at the edges. In “Night Film,” astute readers will notice several near-misses for Pessl to go metatextual, and these readers will sense a better, more finely tuned plot lurking beneath the surface.
Speaking of metatextuality, the narrative for “Night Film” is often interrupted by snippets of websites, journals, police reports and the like, much in the same manner as Mark Daniewlski’s “House of Leaves.” Those with smartphones can even scan icons in the text for additional background information.
While agents and publishers may toy with the notion that this represents the “future of publishing,” the additional information is often unnecessary and usually adds little to the experience. That said, the “found” material replicated in the pages is usually mercifully brief, though one gigantic section of dry text in the center of the novel will try a reader’s patience. Without Pessl’s vibrant stylistics, the narrative, already stretched to the breaking point, starts to falter.
Essentially, Pessl may have narrowed herself down a bit too much with this work. What could have been a classic work of horror, or even literary fiction, becomes weighed down far too much by typical thriller conventions. While it is an excellent thriller, one can’t help but wonder if Pessl could have accomplished much more.
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