Marisha Pessl, an Asheville native who lives in Brooklyn, creates a dark and mysterious world in her sophomore effort Night Film. The story revolves around the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of cult auteur Stanislas Cordova, a man who makes strange and terrifying underground films. Readers follow disgraced journalist Scott McGrath as he seeks answers and redemption by investigating Ashley’s death.
It’s a rare occasion that a novel is released with as much support as Night Film. Photoshoots, interviews, tours, a theatrical trailer and integrated YouTube videos are just part of the marketing machine responsible for promoting Pessl’s sophomore effort. It feels vaguely reminiscent of the lead-up to a summer blockbuster at the box office. Pessl may be working from New York, and Night Film is based in the Big Apple, but the book’s big release has HOLLYWOOD written all over it.
This is both fitting and discomfiting. The book itself feels like a movie script, like Pessl is trying her hand at putting together a major screenplay. And surprise, surprise: rumors indicate the novel is set to hit the big screen at some point in the future.
The problem is that, while Night Film seems like it could make a great movie, the book fails to truly impress. Fans of the genre will be satisfied, but by most standards it is a conventional mystery novel and nothing more. The characters are standard fare, the prose isn’t particularly moving and at times downright stale, and the plot hinges on traditional tricks of suspense. It’s a less groundbreaking version of Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, minus the feminist message or the blurred lines between good and evil.
Too often the novel feels like it’s a manuscript that’s been highlighted for an apparently inexperienced reader. The most perplexing evidence of this is the inordinate amount of italicised phrases in the book. Deft usage of italics for emphasis can enhance the reading of a book, but in Night Film it’s incredibly aggravating. Subtlety and ambiguity are a writer’s friend, and it’s ok to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination, but here the reader will find italics on almost every page, and it ultimately feels intrusive and imposing.
The concept of the novel is actually pretty great. The connection between literature and film is a subject that seems ripe for the picking, especially given the rise of film theory in academic and literary circles. Pessl could have layered meaning upon meaning by examining the relationship between language, art, and reality, but never really achieves the kind of depth such subject matter needs. Moreover, the figure of filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, the recluse and suspected sociopath, doesn’t live up to the legend. One suspects he’s supposed to be a Kubrickesque or Lynchian persona, but if this is the case the words ‘stranger than fiction’ come to mind.
A lot of the praise that’s been lavished upon Night Film centers around the idea of including various media within the novel, i.e. scanned police reports, screen-capped web pages with comment sections included, magazine articles, etc. The addition of multimedia doesn’t really add that much to the experience. It’s somewhat intriguing to think about, but readers in 2013 can easily imagine a webpage without having it presented to them.
Pessl has spoken in interviews about how the world in Night Film is full of shadows, how an artist like Cordova lives in a darkness that isn’t really conceivable in the modern age of 24-hour news cycles and celebrity Twitter feeds. She seems to be arguing that there should actually be more people like Cordova and Kubrick, like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger. The problem with this is that the style of the novel is geared towards shedding light, not shrouding reality in darkness. In a way, her approach actually works against the goal she has set out for herself.
A more subtle, spare technique would have helped the novel greatly. It’s a sprawling 600 pages, and even though it’s fast paced, a pared down version more intent on living in the darkness it claims as its subject would probably be more successful.
Successful as art, that is. By all means Night Film will be a success for Pessl and her publisher, Random House. Pessl is already one of the best-paid authors in the business, and with a movie in the future, things are looking bright for her. Night Film will sell well, probably better than any other book this Summer, but one has to consider the consequences of this success in larger terms. Pessl, a vibrant and intelligent 35 years-old, has a long career ahead of her. Is she content to go the route of a way-less-insufferable Dan Brown? Or does she want to hone her craft, use her status to push the envelope, and lead the next generation of avant-garde literature by American novelists?
That’s why it’s such a bummer that Night Film fails to live up to the hype. There is real potential here, and power. American readers are desperate for a new and exciting voice, but the hope that this voice belongs to Marisha Pessl is diminishing. Perhaps there was too much pressure. Perhaps there should have been more editing, less marketing. Perhaps the machine got too big for it’s own good.
Readers can buy the book from the publisher here.