Full review at Bookgasm
Marisha Pessl’s NIGHT FILM draws from a deep well of cultural anxieties — and equally pervasive and compelling fascinations or enthusiasms — about the dangerous seductions of story. Horror literature is rife with tales of readers lost in the fictions they obsessively sought to understand. So, for that matter, are congressional hearings, chockablock full of harangues against media violence, comic-book perversions, video games that seduce TEH CHILDREN.
If you want to get fancy — and, hey, it’s BOOKGASM; we’re fancy — an even greater anxiety about images pervades Western thought, according to historian Martin Jay. Stories are dangerous scams, and images overwhelm our capacity for critical insight, or even free will. The I is lost through the eye.
Pessl’s central conceit is reclusive horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova and the strange suicide of his daughter, Ashley. Cordova’s films — descriptions of which Pessl parcels out over the course of this brick of a novel — cobble together elements of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, and lurid Technicolor giallo, like the work of Dario Argento. The films’ legendary horrors don’t just startle viewers, they consume them.
As his career progressed, tragedies in his life seem to echo in his work, making the films darker and darker. (Or vice versa: The descent into his aesthetic obsessions may have bled over into his life, infecting all around him.) Rumors abound, hints and allegations of satanism, witchcraft, snuff filmmaking — the films eventually become undistributable, but circulate in literal underground showings, found by obsessive fans via graffiti advertisements (and, later, in ways illustrated with the novel’s own multimedia game-playing, through the web in both mainstream and deep “dark web” backchannels).
But it isn’t just the movies that invite (demand!) viewer interpretation. A complex web of signs seem to weave together this rumor, that death, that stray cinematic trope repeated in his many films.
Enter disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who was previously thrown off pursuit of Cordova’s life by a (possibly) false lead that he was suckered into printing as fact. When Cordova’s daughter commits suicide, in ways that seem to have crossed his path, McGrath sees a chance for redemption, or revenge. He undertakes to learn about Ashley’s last minutes, and to connect — always connect — every element of her life and death back into the Master Plot found throughout Cordova’s oeuvre and existence.
Aided by two strays, McGrath begins the complementary work of investigating and interpreting. In these stories, the act of understanding — making sense of a fictional work, teasing out the hidden truths behind the opaque symbols — is a journey. And a dangerous one: The darkness doesn’t stay onscreen, but seems to creep out into the world all around the reporter.
Suffice it to say that, even at this length, the novel demands the same kind of rushed reading, invokes in its readers the same breathless thrill of discovery (and the delicious dread attendant therewith). I enjoyed NIGHT FILM quite a bit, racing through it over the course of a couple days.
But the invocation of the darkest films seemed to this maybe-jaded reader a bit pallid. It is always difficult in fiction to try and convey a sense of unimaginable horror, and the accounts of Cordova’s work always seemed to me too timid or imitative to be that compelling. (A repeated image of Ashley’s red coat reminded me of the red-cloaked girl/vision/demon in Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, a film that burrowed right behind my 12-year-old eyes and resisted repression for many long, sleepless weeks.)
All too often, I kept thinking of the films and filmmakers, the previous stories and horrific images, from which Pessl seems to borrow. Perhaps it’s that the images she deploys don’t really resist interpretation, despite how often we’re told they defy meaning. As an evocation of its own horrors, it seems two-dimensional, a well-crafted thrill machine that never revs past the propulsive fun of plot to sync up with your own worst nightmares. McGrath gets lost, while I felt comfortably detached — told of horrors, rather than forced into grappling with them myself.
Still, NIGHT FILM has a real motor. Many readers will feel a deeper dread than me, and Pessl’s evocation of character — McGrath, his companions, the oddballs they meet at asylums, sadomasochistic raves, witchcraft boutiques, dank city tenements — is a constant delight. The tale is well-told, if not quite as dangerous as its hype may lead one to believe.