When 24-year-old Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse, veteran journalist Scott McGrath is determined to get to the bottom of it, even though all signs point to suicide. McGrath, a once celebrated investigative reporter, is still reeling from his public fall from grace years earlier, a discrediting prompted by his repeating an anonymous and disparaging tip about Ashley’s father, Stanislav Cordova, a fastidiously reclusive horror film director, who sued McGrath for slander over the remark.
Intrigued by Ashley’s death, and still hung up on the story that sunk his career, McGrath finds himself teaming up with an unlikely duo of “meddling kids“—Hopper, a drug dealer whom Ashley contacted shortly before her death, and Nora, a coat-check girl/aspiring actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. The group’s research takes them deep into the world of Stanislav Cordova, an investigation author Marisha Pessl relays through both narrative and a series of photos, screen grabs of online news stories and pages from Cordova-themed message boards. The man that emerges is a Hitchcock-meets-Eli-Roth eccentric whose brief but cultish career left a trail of scarred employees and rabid fans in its wake.
It’s been years since I read Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, published when she was just 28 years old. I remember loving STICP (the much dog-eared paperback copy still lounging in my apartment confirms as much) but when Night Film was released last year, it got mixed reviews. So I was nervous.
Unfortunately, much of the feedback is fair. Pessl’s writing—in a way I either didn’t notice or thought was cool eight years ago—is a bit…crafty, or whatever the English major equivalent of crafty is. She writes almost as though responding to a classroom fiction prompt, and Pessl’s story, for all its intricately woven threads and collections of whimsically described characters, has the feel of an elaborate game of Clue, but one whose universe of suspects and murder weapons is ill-defined and always subject to change. Like right when you think it’s Mr. Purple in the drawing room with the pistol, you find out there are actually three drawing rooms and four pistols. Which isn’t to say that Night Film misleadingly peddled itself as a whodunit, just that our inability to guess at the full truth can make it harder to engage with the story.
Pessl also has some bad habits. She tends to emphasize things that don’t need emphasis, and any given page of Night Film is riddled with self-evident or unnecessary italics: “[The papers] were faded, warped from the rain. They’d been there for months.” / “He cracked the casement…slid the window open, and without the slightest hesitation, he crawled inside.” She also struggles to delineate between her own narration and how any character might actually speak: “Strewn all over the ground was a pale gray powder,” one girl says earnestly; “[it would uproot her imagination],” says another woman, “like running along a coastline filled with quietly roosting flamingos, displacing them.”
Night Film’s characters, meanwhile, often end up in overly staged situations—at one point, a drenched McGrath finds himself literally changing into a Cordova character’s costume—and tend to shift their motives with little explanation. Less egregiously, Pessl sometimes takes her narrative winks to the point of silliness (an actor named William Bassfender) and drops overwrought analyses in the middle of otherwise normal descriptions (“The effect [of the screens] was dizzying, seeming to suggest some truth about the inherently blinkered nature of human perception.”)
But Night Film is far from bad, and actually—for me, at least—manages to overcome its flaws. Pessl’s plot does get points for intricacy, and her linguistic spitballs occasionally land on the mark (a man is described as having a “gung-ho” hairline (“it couldn’t wait to get started”); a plate on a coffee table contains “an outbreak of cigarettes.”) She may be trying a bit too hard, but she’s trying all the same.
Mostly though, Night Film is saved by Stanislav Cordova, Pessl’s most involved creation, and the one that, in hindsight, seems the biggest risk. Having invented a visionary, Pessl is obligated to insert Cordova into real-life culture, both figuratively (in Night Film, Pulp Fiction’s mysterious briefcase is said to be inspired by a Stanislav movie) and literally, with websites and newspaper articles dedicated to him and his work—much ado in the novel is paid to Stanislav’s last public interview, featured in a Rolling Stone cover story. Pessl’s creation, a man we are asked to consider alongside men like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, could easily have become corny, as could the magazine profiles and screenshots of Cordova-centric online forums that appear throughout the novel. Instead, Stanislav is as fascinating as she intends him to be, and there’s a great dichotomy between his extreme privacy and the no-holds-barred creation of Stanislav-related content in the media and online.
Indeed, Pessl’s venture in non-narrative storytelling is, somehow, one of Night Film’s best traits. The appearance of photos, stories and screen grabs is infrequent enough to feel more innovative than overworked, and Pessl manages to comment on The Way We Idolize Now by showing instead of telling. She may not execute the mixed-format novel with as much nuance as, say, Jennifer Egan in A Visit From the Goon Squad, but Night Film benefits greatly from its sporadic detours into text messages, transcripts and New York magazine excerpts. They make the book feel more modern, more grounded in reality, which all serves to solidify Stanislav as a character, someone you could imagine being a part of the cultural lexicon. Pessl’s breaks from regular storytelling also add a layer of visual suspense to Night Film: Reading alone at night, I nearly jumped out of my skin around page 150, when Scott and Nora stumble upon an eerie photo of Ashley alone at a picnic table. Including the photo in the book did more to creep me out than any description of it could have.
Throughout its 500-odd pages, Night Film reminded me most immediately of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 Robert Downey Jr. movie that had RDJ (playing an actor) traipsing around LA with a private detective (Val Kilmer) and childhood friend Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) as they tried to solve a mystery involving Harmony’s missing sister and Harlan Dexter, a pulp crime novelist whom the sisters idolized as kids. While KKBB is a dark comedy (Downey/Kilmer being one of my favorite comedic pairings of the 2000s), both it and Night Film have a similar Noir 2.0 vibe, and both benefit from the insta-narrative-foil of having three unlikely individuals working together to solve a potential crime. Night Film is kind of like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang meets Vertigo meets Scooby Doo.
Pessl’s sophomore novel is, without question, less than perfect. But for all its flaws and quirks, Night Film is still dark and compelling, and took some chutzpah to pull off—who opens their novel with a New York Times article? Ultimately though, the book’s bright spot and saving grace is Cordova, who by the end I wished did exist, just so I could watch his banned movies and form personal opinions about his body of work and cult-like following. Pessl may not be America’s best creative visionary, but in Night Film she does a phenomenal job of inventing one.
TITLE: Night Film
AUTHOR: Marisha Pessl
PAGES: 528 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
SORTA LIKE: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang meets Vertigo meets Scooby Doo
FIRST LINE: “Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.”