Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Today: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Some novels are novels. That is, they’re just novels. You read them, they infect you or may even insinuate themselves into you, and it’s fun to spend a few hours or days losing yourself inside them. Other books, though, they haunt you. You know as you read them that there’s something a bit different. A way with words, sometimes. A pattern of telling detail. The pictures they paint in your mind.

Marisha Pessl’s new novel, Night Film (Random House), is of the second kind. This massively entertaining dream of a novel is something you experience. It leaves you breathless at times, stunned at others, and wonderfully entertained for all of its some 600 pages.

Night Film is the story of a group of people bound by the horrifying work of a reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova. I say bound. But the truth is, a better word would be tangled. There’s Cordova himself, whose work brought him fame, a pitch-black reputation, and a life that some might envy and others might mourn. His family, his children, his colleagues -- all have suffered for the sake of his art. His daughter, Ashley, whose death opens the book, suffers perhaps the most, driven to her death by the echoes his work brought to her life.

The novel follows the dogged investigation of a shamed reporter, Scott McGrath, as he tries to unravel the mystery surrounding Ashley’s death, and the two young colleagues who are caught up in Cordova’s spell as well.

There’s so much going on here, all at once, that it’s nothing short of miraculous that Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, manages to keep it all moving as briskly as she does. But while the pace keeps you hooked, what keeps you enthralled is her eye for detail. You don’t just read about where McGrath goes; you’re there with him, seeing what he sees, smelling what he smells, thinking what he thinks. Pessl’s descriptions are razor-sharp, each one honed until it sings.

One of the most interesting things in Night Film is that Pessl has built not just Cordova’s world, but also his films. The titles, the key plot points, the characters, even the props and sets. His work as a filmmaker isn’t just referred to; it’s integral to the overall feeling of the book, and you get a real sense of his movies even though you haven’t seen a single frame.

Perhaps to make the read more filmic, in the absence of the visual sizzle of Cordova’s movies themselves, Pessl has sprinkled throughout the novel some of the ephemera that drive McGrath forward, placing his own family at risk, as well as his own sanity. Articles, a police report, web pages, handwritten scribbles; each contains a clue, sometimes many clues. Many help McGrath unravel what’s happened, helping him spy a potential next step or a tiny thread to tease.

These bits are interesting and fun, and they help you understand more about the people who populate Night Film, both on- and off-stage. However, I’m not sure any of it is needed. Pessl’s writing is so good, these little slices of “reality,” while sometimes illuminating, stop the action she works so hard to propel. And while one of them provides the ending to the book, it’s merely a coda. It seems superfluous and the novel’s only misstep; a better ending would have been the chapter before.

But this quibble is minor. Pessl’s intention is clear, and so is her talent. Her Night Film is a novel whose own calamity physics will grab you and stay with you. ◊

Tony Buchsbaum has been reviewing books and interviewing authors for January Magazine since 2000. He recently finished a new novel, and he needs an agent. If you're an agent -- or if you know one -- please e-mail him right away. Really.

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