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Review of ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Review of ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Night Film’ was provided by Scoop Review of Books

 

Night Film is Marisha Pessl’s second novel, and it is a richly entertaining read, although this experience feels like more than just reading. Pessl takes what might be called a trope – a combination of characters and their surroundings that feel very familiar – and does something spectacular with it. She has created a layered thriller that keeps you wondering, and exploring, well after the last page has been turned.

At the heart of Night Film is the reclusive horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Only those who’ve had direct contact with him know what he looks like. Photographs in the media or on the internet may or may not be him. Pessl has echoed Roeg, Hitchcock, Polanski, Cassavetes and others to create a character who is familiar yet unknown, and taken it to extremes. Readers will find themselves wishing – hoping, even – that he really existed – even though, if he did, they may never have dared see one of his films.

Pessl’s imagination and dedication in creating Cordova’s story is impressive. A full back catalogue of films, both before and after he was driven underground. Actors and family irreversibly affected by the experience of being connected to Cordova. A deep web community – the ‘blackboards’ – where Cordovites share stories, information about screenings and more, and where new visitors are not welcome. A sprawling Gothic estate in the Adirondacks where he made all his films, exerting absolute control over their creation. A university tutor specialising in Cordova’s films, including their symbols and structure. Very quickly you forget it’s all made up, and you want to log into the ‘blackboards’ and join in.

Night Film is told in the first person by Scott McGrath, a journalist who once tried to investigate Cordova but was disgraced for not being able to prove his allegations. Now Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, is dead, and McGrath is back on the case. Pessl’s decision to make McGrath the narrator allows Night Film to both reach its heights and avoid the many traps such a complicated book might set. Because McGrath, as it soon becomes clear, is a less than reliable narrator. Before long, you doubt everything that’s going on, and realise that it is McGrath’s story being told: his obsession with Cordova and Ashley, through his biased eyes and mind.

Not content with creating a complicated, intriguing world, an enigmatic character who dominates the book without being there, and an unreliable narrator, Pessl goes one step further and includes web pages, newspaper reports, photographs and more. There’s even an app which provides more material if you scan certain images in the novel. The web pages are black, the cover black, and at key points whole pages are black, with McGrath’s narrative disappearing and reappearing roughly two pages worth of story later – and the reader left wondering, like McGrath, about what happened.

In the end, it was almost too much for me, but Pessl reigns herself in somewhat as the book draws to a close and provides a perfectly appropriate and mysterious ending. Having seen the story exclusively from McGrath’s point of view – biased, drunk, drugged or just plain mistaken – we know only what he thinks he knows, and are as ignorant as he is about the truth. Near the end of the book, Pessl introduces a character who, while their place is perfectly justified and signalled early on, may be just a little too contrived as a way of telling the reader some of the truth. Without that character, though, the level of frustration about what really happened in the preceding 500 pages would have been too high.

Although McGrath’s language is a little clichéd and clunky from time to time, I’m on Pessl’s side when it comes to criticism of her writing – it’s McGrath’s voice, not Pessl’s, and it is absolutely consistent throughout, coming from the obsessed, flawed, burnt out wordsmith.

I was completely taken in by Night Film, and couldn’t put it down. When it comes to the literary last page test – ‘Do you want to know what happens next?’ – it passes with flying colours, and then some.

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