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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Night Film: Exploring the Dark Arts

Today is pub day for the most buzzed about novel of the summer: Marisha Pessl's Night Film. Will it live up to the hype?

I got a pre-pub ebook from the publisher, and spent the last two weeks with it, and I can faithfully report that it's got a good shot.

You'll hear frequently that Night Film is a "genre-bender" — and that's not wrong. It's a fast-paced mystery and a psychological thriller. It's an examination of the intersection of myth and fact, and art and real life. And it's a glimpse into the bowels of hell. DUM Dum dum... For me, this cross-genre-ness is a delight (Pessl is a supremely fun writer — profound and hip and funny and smart all at once), but to others, this might be confusing; especially if you have a preconceived notion that this is a Stephen King horror novel or a Michael Connelly thriller mystery or a Gillian Flynn head-messer-upper, etc. It's none of those, but a little bit of all of them, too.

Also, Night Film is a story in which you as the reader get to take an active role — not in a "choose-your-own-adventure" sense, but more in the sense that you're practically a character in the novel. This will also, no doubt, appeal differently to different readers. You, the reader, have to decide how much you're going to trust Pessl, while fully understanding that she may be trying to misdirect or confuse you as well. You have to choose what to believe, right along with the characters. Is there a reasonable explanation for such-and-such plot twist, or is there something more sinister going on? To me, that was a delight — indeed, my favorite part of the novel. To other readers, that might be annoying.

But that'll all make more sense once you understand the plot. So, here: Scott McGrath, our first-person narrator, is a mid-40s investigative reporter in New York City. Five years ago, while investigating the reclusive, cult-hero horror film director Stanislas Cordova (think David Lynch crossed with Hitchcock), he'd been publicly disgraced and discredited when, based on details gleaned from an anonymous phone call, he went on a news show and called Cordova a pedophile and possibly a murderer.

Back to the present, Cordova's youngest daughter, the beautiful, troubled 24-year-old Ashley has committed suicide by jumping down an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in Queens. McGrath gets the itch for the story again, and along with two cohorts (a stoner named Hopper and 19-year-old girl named Nora), re-starts the investigation in earnest.

McGrath interviews various people (a man who helped Ashley escape a mental hospital, a freaked-out maid at the Waldorf Towers hotel, patrons of a secret sex club) who came into contact with Ashley during her mysterious last week of life. The story begins to get weird — did Ashley dabble in the occult? Does her father? — and are those connections to the dark arts the basis for Cordova's horror movies?

As McGrath investigates, he's forced to weigh his staunch skepticism as a grounded, rational journalist with the real possibility that there may be elements to Ashley's story that traverse the traditional. And you, the reader, are right there with him, performing a stress test on your own beliefs. Can black magic or curses or worse be really real? Or is Pessl just playing tricks on us? Is our (like the characters') ability to be solely rational slowly eroding? Again, this was my favorite aspect of this novel — trying to figure out how much I wanted to let myself believe.

Another of the novel's calling cards is its inclusion of "real" newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and other documents. This adds another layer of reality to the story — inasmuch as these elements are real to the fictional world of the novel. It's a great strategy because it leads to even greater contrast between the real world and the possibility of a shadowy, metaphysical, "beyond-the-five-senses" one.

There are, however, a few things that will drive you nuts about this novel — one, which you'll hear about frequently, I'm sure, is the ending. It's the WTFiest of all WTF endings. If you need your endings to tie a neat bow around your story, this'll drive you a bit bananas. Additionally, there is a subplot or two that seem superfluous to the environment of mystery Pessl painstakingly creates (which isn't a huge deal, but this IS a long book). And finally, it just seemed strange that the girl Nora — who only knew Ashley because Ashley checked her coat one night at the restaurant at which Nora was working — was so willing to help with the investigation, and that McGrath would let her.

Overall, though, I think most readers will allow themselves to get lost in this novel's 600+ pages, and really enjoy the reading experience. That was definitely the case for me. I didn't think the novel was nearly as frightening as some early readers have claimed, but it's still a bit unsettling in spots. You may, indeed, want to get your nightlight ready — this one will keep you up late.

8 comments:

  1. I'm really looking forward to reading this. I loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics and wondered what Pessl would do next.

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    1. I really liked Special Topics, too - she's certainly a unique voice!

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  2. Totally agree about Nora! I didn't dislike the character or her role in the investigation, but it did seem a bit odd that she would be investigating in the first place.

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    1. I didn't dislike her, either - and she certainly added a bit of mystery to the story. I never really trusted her because I kept thinking it was strange that she was involved at all. We find out Hopper isn't all he says he is, and I kept waiting for a reveal about Nora - but nothing.

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  3. I didn't find it to be very scary or intense, mostly because I didn't really care about Scott or Nora - they were such underdeveloped characters. Pessl put so much effort into developing the Cordovas (and I totally commend her for that, I was amazed by that part of the novel) that Ashley was the only character I really felt invested in.

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    1. I'd agree with you about Nora - she was kind of flat, though her backstory was interesting. But I disagree about Scott - I don't know if I "cared" about him, but I thought he was a great, fully developed character. Sarcastic, damaged, willing to put his story ahead of the safety of his daughter. And it's Scott who we side with when the weird stuff starts happening - he's skeptical, and we are, too.

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  4. I'm reading Night Film right now(won an ARC from RH)and I do agree that it's an interesting read so far. Enjoyed Special Topics as well and NF puts me in mind of a Theodore Roszak novel that I read a long time ago called Flicker-it has a similar theme of a mysterious film maker and his influence on audiences. If you can find Flicker,I recommend it highly.

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  5. I'm slightly on the fence about this one -- but will likely get to it

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