Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel Night Film is a sprawling noir that follows disgraced journalist Scott McGrath as he searches for the heart of darkness that drives the films of the acclaimed and reclusive director Stanislas Cordova. At the center of the mystery is Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley, a piano prodigy who has committed suicide—or has she?
As a legendary purveyor of fear and anxiety, Cordova is an alluring figure. His drive to create ever more disturbing avant-garde psychological thrillers has forced both his film making and distribution literally underground. Having long since lost studio backing, Cordova’s cult lives on through “red-band screenings” held in abandoned tunnels beneath Paris and New York and bootleg videos that circulate among his network of obsessive fans.
McGrath dives into the New York underworld in search of the truth about Ashley’s death. Along the way, he picks up two sidekicks, Nora, a quirky wannabe actress and Hopper, a beautiful, brooding, young alcoholic who’s cagey about his past. Pessl, careful with the details but indifferent to her characters’ feelings or motivations, treats them like hand-painted dolls, and their interesting backstories don’t stop them, McGrath included, from playing as stock types. Still, the plot skips along enjoyably, unburdened by their emotional baggage and inner lives.
Night Film is chock-full of ersatz news clips and medical records, each more uncannily photoshopped than the next, but if that weren’t enough, there’s also a downloadable app that offers interactive digital enhancements that range from fake movie posters to Dictaphone tapes. No doubt some critics will hail Night Film as the next Infinite Jest or, more aptly, House of Leaves, but the book’s ambition falls well short of either of those forerunners. Pessl’s only goal is to entertain. (Pessl’s previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a cute exercise in precocity notable for its unreliable narrator and lack of substance.) It would be easy to assail Pessl’s decoder-ring approach to fiction, but the enhanced elements aren’t the book’s biggest flaw. They add little to the story, but they certainly take nothing away.
Ultimately, Night Film, despite its attempts at seedy darkness, is more Coney Island than Lower East Side. Both the plot and the digital elements are silly but fun. If you’re like me, you’ll read the book skeptically, wanting to believe but expecting a rational explanation for all of the dark magic and mayhem. Late in the book, when McGrath gets to close to the mystery, one of Cordova’s minions implores him to “live in the real world.” The truth turns out to be slightly greater than the facts but hardly enough to be satisfying. Throughout the narrative, McGrath is in hot pursuit of an enchanting phantom, and the resolution is disappointing: when the curtain is finally pulled back, no one is there.
– Matt Tanner