Warning: Very Vague Spoilers
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I waited behind an electronic holds queue of 50 people to check it out of the library. I forgave the publisher’s vulgar, gimmicky, and frankly classist decision to fill the book with “easter eggs” the reader can access with an iPhone app. I rode the bus to the library in the bleak November…okay, that’s overdoing it, but you get the idea.
Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, made a big impression on me a few years back. In fact, I reread it twice. Special Topics is dark and precocious, with the kind of awesome twist ending that explains what came before without providing improbably perfect closure for the characters. It is a wonderful rainy day mystery/bildungsroman and it comes highly recommended. So when I heard that young Pessl finally had a new book out after seven years, I was thrilled.
Night Film begins cinematically when Scott McGrath, a disgraced journalist, encounters a strange red-coated woman during a jog through Central Park. He later learns that she was Ashley Cordova, the daughter of reclusive movie director Stanislav Cordova, and that she committed suicide soon after the sighting. McGrath seeks both professional redemption and abstract truth as he launches an investigation into her and her father, an investigation that will take him into the dark heart of artistic expression and to the very limits of human understanding. It’s a great highbrow-mystery premise, and if I didn’t admire many aspects of this book I wouldn’t have kept reading. Many of the book’s setpieces are wonderfully chilling, and the descriptions of Cordova’s films were so enthralling that I wished they were real. I also enjoyed Pessl’s insights into creativity and how the internet age might affect it:
I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create. It gives him his power. His invisibility. The less the world knows about him, his whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has.
So yes, a book worth reading, a book better than most of the flotsam that issues from our publishing houses. But also a book with flaws. Pessl built a well-oiled machine of a plot, but the human element often eludes her; I fear that at this point in her career, she is one of those authors who can’t write the opposite sex.
Pessl’s method as a prose stylist is to fire similes at the reader and hope that her talent can make most of them stick. A maltese strides across the floor “like a tiny Thanksgiving day parade float”; a woman ducks into a car “fast as a burrowing mole.” Many of these similes charm, but others confuse: “The place felt clinical and claustrophobic, like a train compartment.” Of course train compartments are claustrophobic, but since when are they clinical? This hit-or-miss strategy worked well in Special Topics, when the narrator was a gifted college student who might realistically write her memoirs in such a fussy, affected, occasionally brilliant voice. In Night Film we are listening to a middle-aged male investigative reporter, and the avalanches of twee similes come across as clumsy and odd. They become downright uncomfortable when Pessl must describe secondary characters who are not white – a Japanese doorman is “The Last Samurai,” while a hispanic man in a green shirt has “a certain tropical authority.” The reader is left unsure as to whether this is meant to suggest that McGrath is mildly racist or whether it’s just pulpy, outdated writing.
The prose reflects a more general problem with characterization. McGrath is meant to be a hard-boiled investigative reporter in the tradition of film noir, but even reporters have to have feelings at some point. They have to get horny when an attractive woman flirts with them, they have to get pissed when a lead goes nowhere, they have to fight back tears when their child is taken away. They definitely have to laugh – growing up, I spent time in the newsroom where my dad worked, and I learned that journalism is one of the laughing professions. McGrath snarks but never laughs, like Daria. He only demonstrates a realistic degree of vitality when he or another character is in physical danger; otherwise, he comes across as a robot who generates sarcastic similes, stalks the Cordova family, and burns through endless disposable income (the book’s true mystery.) McGrath’s two twentysomething sidekicks, Hopper and Nora, are also underdeveloped, with the additional traits of being annoying and speaking in long, complex paragraphs.
Also, Night Film has a problematic ending. Without giving too much away, it has a Life of Pi ending, one of those choose-your-own-worldview monstrosities that think they’re saying something profound about science and faith when they’re really the “And then I woke up” of the 21st century. If this were a starred review, I would remove an entire star for this. Then again, Life of Pi endings may be a personal pet peeve. If you don’t mind them, then you’ll probably find this to be a B to A- novel. Pessl is a remarkably inventive young writer who is still finding her voice; even though I was somewhat disappointed in Night Film, I still want to read her next book, which will hopefully come out in less that seven years.