Night Film (20 August 2013) by Marisha Pessl
Night Film is Marisha Pessl's second novel and, in a nutshell, it is stunning. I hope I still have plenty of excellent reads to come in 2013, but they're going to have a hell of a hard time living up to this.
The protagonist of this epic, ambitious tale is Scott McGrath, formerly an extremely successful investigative journalist, whose professional reputation was destroyed when he was found to have made false allegations against Stanislas Cordova, an infamously reclusive film director. He lost his job, his work was discredited, and shortly afterwards his wife left him, taking their baby daughter with her. A few years later, McGrath is still haunted by the incident and has remained convinced that there is something sinister waiting to be discovered in Cordova's history. The death of Cordova's 24-year-old daughter - the equally enigmatic and very beautiful Ashley - in an apparent case of suicide prompts McGrath to reinvestigate the family's secrets. His quest leads him to form an unlikely alliance with two rootless, semi-homeless youths, wannabe actress Nora and small-time drug dealer Hopper, and to encounter a parade of eccentric characters who draw him deeper into a murky underworld of lies and conspiracies.
That's only half the story, however. At the centre of everything that happens in Night Film is the shadowy figure of Stanislas Cordova. Described at the beginning as 'the last enigma', Cordova hasn't been seen in public since the 1970s, and although he doesn't actually appear in person in the book, he is arguably its main character nevertheless. His canon, consisting of fifteen horror films, has become increasingly obscure and correspondingly coveted: after protests against one of his movies in the late 1980s, the remainder were self-produced and only seen by those who attended underground screenings. Nobody really knows where Cordova is or even whether he's still alive - his last film, in which Ashley appeared, was made in 1996 - although he's believed to be holed up in his private country estate, where the majority of his films were shot. The invention of the Cordova legend is where the book's unique selling point, its multimedia aspect, really comes into play. The narrative includes photos, news articles, website screenshots, text messages and written notes, all of which cleverly help to build a believable picture of the unseen character.
For the three days I was reading Night Film, I was completely lost to the allure of Pessl's New York - a city where everything from a dirty, tumbledown apartment block to a sumptuous Upper East Side penthouse is infected with darkness and a touch of the macabre. With stories within stories, fiction bleeding into reality, films becoming nightmares and nightmares becoming real, this fascinating, multi-layered world reminded me of the work of Paul Auster, Sam Thompson's Communion Town, and Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. The (black) magic of the settings isn't confined to the city: the Cordova family's remote hideaway, a vast mansion called The Peak, conjures up such an atmosphere that it almost looms over the story - like a physical presence, ever more menacing. For the duration of this story, the real world seemed infinitely duller than the book.
Something else that Pessl does very skilfully here is to weave a genuinely interesting and believable web of intrigue around the Cordova character. Including fake pop-culture references in fiction is always a really tricky thing - how many times have you been pulled out of the spell of a good novel by a totally unbelievable 'celebrity' character? And even when the premise is fairly easy to accept (Cordova is a cult hero, not a megastar), it's easy to wonder about certain things. In a world where stuff like 'The Human Centipede' gets a mainstream release, would the films in the Cordova oeuvre - which, when they're described, don't sound all that scary - really command such respect and terror? In the internet age, is it honestly believable that a) the films wouldn't have made it out there as downloads and been seen by pretty much everyone, and b) nobody who'd worked with Cordova would have talked more about him? The answer to these questions isn't necessarily 'yes', but it still works. I believed in Cordova and his work enough to accept that there would be an unusual level of mystique around him. I believed that the films could have been real, and that if they had been, they would have attained cult status. Even if there are tiny flaws (and a rather audacious rewriting of the 1980 Oscars!) the myth stands up. The whole book is fittingly filmic, with a constant hint of B-movie/noir hanging over every revelation, confession, obscure clue and dead end. Yet there's always enough genuinely creepy realism to give you pause; there's a proper edge to it all, a sense that this is more than just a game.
A note for those who disliked Pessl's polarising debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: please don't let that stop you from giving this book a try. I wasn't wild about Special Topics - it showed that Pessl was hugely talented, but I also found it completely overwritten and felt like the plot was drowning under layer upon layer of over-the-top language. Aside from being another demonstration of talent, Night Film is not like that at all. Scott is a straight-talking hero, the opposite of Special Topics' precocious, purple-prose-loving Blue, and this story is so plot-driven it never loses pace. It's kind of silly in a lot of ways, but that is NOT a criticism at all. It's incredibly imaginative and adventurous, and always a bit tongue in cheek - it's so non-stop action-packed that it could almost be a spoof of a cliffhanger-stuffed adventure novel if it wasn't so damn good.
An absolute tour de force, a completely brilliant story - a chunky doorstop of a book, yet one that's readable and compelling enough to finish within days. The blurb describes it as a 'literary thriller' and it's just the perfect embodiment of that: it's vastly intelligent, but so much fun, exciting and twisty with a sense of humour and a huge IQ. I just know my copy of Night Film is bound to become one of those treasured, battered, well-thumbed books that I've re-read and dipped into a thousand times. I'm in awe of how brilliant it is and I really envy all of you who haven't had the pleasure of reading it yet. It is my book of the year so far (and that 'so far' wouldn't be there at all if the new Donna Tartt wasn't coming out this year...) and if you know what's good for you, you will be pre-ordering it RIGHT NOW.
I received a review copy of Night Film from the publisher, Hutchinson, a division of Random House. Although I am eternally grateful to them for this, it didn't influence my review whatsoever - I really thought the book was that good!
Rating: 10/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle