There’s been quite a bit of hype and advance press for Marisha Pessl’s new novel, Night Film. Praise has been lavished on it and the author, best known for her debut novel Special Topics In Calamity Physics, which was a critical darling. Unfortunately, Night Film does not deliver on it’s promise of “breath-taking” suspense, nor was it as mind-, or especially genre-bending, as people claim it to be.
Night FilmNight Film tells the story of a dogged reporter, Scott McGrath and his obsession with cult director Stanislas Cordova, whose films became so horrific that studios dropped him and he went completely underground, never to be seen again. McGrath’s previous investigation into the director ended his career as a journalist 5 years before the story begins, though he still somehow manages to maintain a nice apartment in a good section of New York, bribe whomever he needs to whenever he needs to, and take his young daughter to FAO Schwartz as an I’m-sorry-for-being-a-shitty-dad pay off.
The novel starts with at notice that Cordova’s 24 year old daughter, Ashley, was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in New York. It’s ruled a suicide, but the intrepid McGrath can’t believe that, especially because he thinks she was trying to send him a message by appearing like a specter to McGrath one night while he’s running at 2am in Central Park, just before her death. And here begins the central issue with this character. He believes that he somehow central to what is happening here, and he is willing to risk the safety of anyone, including his daughter to find out the “truth” of Cordova. Ashely’s death is merely the impetus to go after Cordova himself again. McGrath has convinced himself, based on testimony and “evidence” that Cordova was doing something sinister, if not downright evil, all these years.
Near the beginning of the book, McGrath picks up two sidekicks; one is a recalcitrant kid, Hopper, who met Ashley at camp for disturbed youth, the other a plucky young struggling actress, Nora, trying to make her way in the big city. Hopper clearly has his own agenda, and his big reveal is no surprise–you can see it coming almost immediately, while Nora seems to be there because Pessl decided she needed someone to try and ground McGrath, to make him sympathetic in some way. Nora doesn’t really have a function in the narrative, except to haplessly collect needed clues, and the book could have easily done without her. McGrath probably would have done fine on his own, since every one he talks to about Ashley or Cordova opens up to him like a flower to the sun, no matter how insane or reclusive they are. McGrath alone is the chosen one, the only one who gets all of the answers, however true or misleading they might appear to be.
The deeper he gets into the circumstances of Ashley’s death, the more paranoid he becomes, to the point that he actually thinks he might be the subject of a Cordova film; after all the director notoriously like to deal with “reality” in his films. That word is in quotes there because Pessl seems to want to make the distinction between reality and fiction the central theme of the novel. How much can we trust what we see, or hear, or feel?, she wants to ask. Perception is key in this novel, or at least Pessl it wants to be. Ultimately, however, all of this comes off as incredibly artificial and downright gimmicky. There’s hoodoo/voodoo, creepy dolls and strange children, abandoned houses, secretive twisted adult fantasy lands, etc. The climax of the novel has McGrath questioning his sanity, his reality, everything that has happened till then, yet it feels false. We know the entire time that neither he nor his missing companions are really in mortal, or even psychological danger. Pessl cannot get close enough to her character to fully convey McGrath’s terror or inner crisis, and nothing about him really changes afterwards. He is the same obsessed man willing to sacrifice anyone to get at what he says is the truth.
This is the biggest flaw in the novel, aside from the ending. The characters are flat and do not change or progress through out the novel. Neither Hopper nor McGrath are very sympathetic, and Nora is so flatly plucky she’s like cardboard cutout with her own sob story taped to the back. They mystery is not really a mystery either. Ashley’s suicide is never really questioned; it’s the why that drives McGrath & Hopper. Hopper gets his answer and is abruptly done with it all, as is Nora (I still have no idea why she was even involved). Then there’s the grand denouement after the climax, which offers McGrath a perfectly reasonable answer to everything that the reader has already figured out. Yet he still can’t let it go. More than anything, obsession turns out to be the real theme of the novel. And just when you decide, as the reader, that you’re not sure if the answer is really the truth, Pessl drops you in one of the biggest cop-outs I’ve seen in a while. She drives the point that the truth is elusive home in such a way that it feels like a giant fuck-you to the readers who have followed her boring, flat characters to the very end, just to make sure that what they think is going to happen really does.
With lines like ” ‘Everyone has a price.’ ‘Some people can’t be bought’, ” not even the writing, which Pessl was so vigorously praised for in her pervious novel, can save this sorry excuse for a “genre-bending,” literary thriller. Nor can all of its interactive and multimedia content, which includes an app you can download to “continue the story.” “Hidden” images (which are quite obvious) can be scanned by the app on your phone or iPad to discover additional content or clues, making it supposedly more real and engaging (the reader is a detective now too!) but really only serves to highlight it’s artificiality. Fantastic vistas are far less effective when you can see the scaffolding. And if you don’t have a smart phone, this novel is clearly not for you. This desperate bid for technological hipness leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not only will the tech involved be obsolete as late as next year, it predetermines the book’s irrelevancy. You don’t really need all of the extra stuff to read the book and feel like you got what Pessl was trying to do. But in order to really enjoy this novel, you do need an ending that doesn’t make you feel like all of the hours you spent reading the book were a complete and total waste of time.
Good luck with that.