Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Night Film

Random House: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Random House: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Random House: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Random House: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film

by Marisha Pessl

Night Film, Marisha Pessl's first novel since debuting in 2006 with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is a puzzle-quest in the Dan Brown mode, with some key differences. First, her prose has a lot more snap to it, with a genuine emotional complexity to her characters--imagine the eerie vibe of early Stephen King melded with the gloomy fatalism of Colin Harrison. Second, rather than drawing upon Dante or Masonic lore, Pessl has crafted an intricately detailed mystery around a cinematic icon who exists only in her imagination.

Night Film is built around two absences that chip away at the psyche of the novel's narrator, disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath. His immediate concern is the apparent suicide of the former musical prodigy Ashley Cordova, whom he may have seen shortly before her death. Beneath that mystery, though, lies the even greater enigma of Ashley's father, the reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova. Pessl is obviously drawing inspiration from Stanley Kubrick here, but she pushes the legend of Cordova into far darker dimensions; his later films are said to be so disturbing that they're no longer distributed by Hollywood studios, but literally have gone underground in screenings organized by his cult-like fan base. "The space around Cordova distorts," one character warns McGrath. "Information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical." (Even the director's fan website, several pages of which McGrath views during his investigation, exists apart from the regular Internet.)

Solving Ashley's death is a personal mission for McGrath: his career went on the skids five years ago when he recklessly accused Cordova of committing crimes against children and was sued for slander. So he's determined to prove that he was on to something back then--but is it the story he thought it was? Meanwhile, as he starts probing Ashley's last days, he picks up two unwanted research assistants. First, there's Hopper, a young drug dealer lurking around the construction site where Ashley's body was found. McGrath knocks him out, swipes his cell phone, then cajoles him into an interview as he's giving it back the next day. In return, Hopper invites himself along to McGrath's next interview--with Nora, the coat-check girl at the Four Seasons, who may have been the last person to see Ashley alive. Soon, she too is dogging McGrath's every footstep, as the two 20-somethings provide a running commentary on each new development (and, frequently, McGrath's fitness of character).

Pessl revels in the noir setup of her story, fleshing out McGrath as a hard-boiled narrator who quite rapidly gets in way over his head, with Nora falling into place as the (not really so) ditzy moll with a heart of gold and Ashley's femme fatale ghost looming over the proceedings. But Night Film is also marked by a flair for the baroque, as both Ashley's death and Stanislas Cordova's backstory take on increasingly occult overtones. Again, there are traces of late Kubrick here, especially The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, but Pessl's ultimate vision is more complexly layered. Some of the flourishes might seem parodic--it's not enough that Cordova withdrew from the world to a sprawling estate in the woods of upstate New York; that mansion was built, we're told, on a Mohawk massacre site, with a former occupant who went insane. Other details, however, deliver a more genuinely chilling effect, like the brief appearance of the Japanese ghost story tradition Hyaukonomogatari Kaidankai, also known as "The Game of 100 Candles."

Though it's rich in plot, the ultimate strength of Night Film lies in such atmospherics, and Pessl holds nothing back on that front. She has developed full scenarios for several of the films in Cordova's nearly 50-year career, each one creepier than the next. At times, her vision is so elaborate that words aren't enough to convey it. In addition to pages from Cordova's fan website, Night Film also reproduces (fictional) articles from sources like the New York Times, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, an online slideshow at Time, Ashley's admittance form at a mental institution and McGrath's original typewritten research notes with accompanying photos. These visual elements are integrated smoothly into the narrative, popping up as McGrath finds them in his search, and there's almost always something in them that will eventually move the story forward.

Pessl skillfully builds the dark tone of Night Film to a fever pitch. Ultimately, she has to define the rabbit hole down which McGrath has fallen, and once she's made her choice she sees it through in a way that remains emotionally authentic to his personality as it's unfolded over the preceding chapters. Her decision, however, is likely to provoke vehement reactions from critics and other readers. In a way, you can see that as a tribute to the story's compulsive allure--that it's possible to get so caught up in McGrath's struggle to make sense of the mysteries surrounding Ashley and her father, to become deeply invested in the theories we've constructed about the possible solutions, only to realize that Pessl is steering us down a different path. --Ron Hogan

Random House, $28, hardcover, 9781400067886, August 2013

Random House: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl: Pushing the Boundaries

photo: David Schulze

When Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, came out in 2006, much of the media's focus was on the then-28-year-old novelist rather than the book itself--a point Pessl briefly acknowledged during a recent conversation in a diner on Manhattan's Upper East Side--"And that's all in the past and hopefully we have new things to talk about." Although she's willing to do interviews for her new novel, Night Film, she's doing her best not to pay attention to the hoopla around its impending release. "Ultimately," Pessl says, "if you get swept up, you just don't write. And it's the writing that I love so much."

You incorporate a lot of visual elements into Night Film, pushing the boundaries of the novelistic format.

In this case, because [Scott McGrath] is an investigative journalist compiling the world--the truth--beyond the artifacts that are floating around the world of Stanislas Cordova, it just made sense to me to make them immediate to the reader. Rather than Scott explaining that he came across a website and x, y, z, why not just have the website there for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions?

I also love libraries, I love old estate sales, I love sifting through old photographs and newspaper articles and drawing my own conclusions. I wanted the reader to have that experience as well. It feels a bit voyeuristic, and then it's also active because you're a detective right along with the main character.

For something like the photos of Ashley, how does it work? Do you have someone in mind, does the designer come to you...?

That was a collaboration with this incredible design firm called Kennedy-Monk. As I was writing the book, because I knew it was going to have this visual, tactile piece to it, I did my own visuals, but obviously I didn't have the license to actually use any of those in the printed book. Once I turned in the novel to Random House, the next three months were spent really curating that archive and collaborating with the designer in terms of what Ashley was going to look like and what bits and pieces we would bring to life without intruding upon the traditional reading experience.

Before you could get into telling the immediate story, you had to create an entire body of work, the films that Cordova directed over the decades.

There was a time when I was working on the plots to each of those films, and my mom was like, "Maybe you should start writing the actual book at this point. You're not writing screenplays." And I was like, "I know, but I just want to make it real for myself." So when Scott is going about his journey, he will draw on what he remembers about Cordova's films--bits and pieces, different strands and threads, different characters.... I just had to make that real. If I didn't, it would just be kind of general, and "general" is not what I like to read.

So do you have full stories worked out for these films?

Totally. Totally. I think I might draw on them one day for something else. They're all very real in my head.

Also, in your head do you have an answer as to whether Night Film is a supernatural thriller or a psychological one?

photo courtesy of the author

I do. I wanted the two strands running throughout the novel, the scientific and the rational and the irrational, the chaotic and the supernatural. I wanted to take Scott, starting at one end of that spectrum, and take him deeper and deeper into the other side. I think it's a question of who you are as to which side of the story you believe.

It's positioned as a literary thriller, but under the right circumstances, it could've been positioned as a horror novel and nobody would've batted an eye.

Well, "literary" is such a catch-all term. Sometimes it just means having characters that don't speak in weird clichés. It can also have a bad connotation as being really boring with no plot.... I care about character. I think you can have the most magnificent plot, but if you don't have characters that people believe in or care about, it's a hollow book. So I do take the time to make those characters as real to myself as possible--and also to be people that I want to spend time with, since I spend so much time with them!

I do love psychological thrillers. And I like horror, too. I was interested in examining this aspect of being scared, this universal feeling of being terrified of the unknown.

Cordova is a central character in your story, yet he never shows up--as far as we know, anyway.

I was interested in how the stories we tell about other people bring them to life, how they become a sort of patchwork persona based on recollection and misunderstanding. I think Cordova understands the power of remaining hidden, and that's part of his myth. I was also interested in the fact that, in present-day society, everything is so overexposed. We know so much about everyone. I wanted to create a pop-culture figure who was hidden and goes out of his way to remain underground.

Which is a lot harder to do in 2013 than it was a few decades ago.

I think there's something wonderful about transparency and being able to know what your friends are up to all the time, but I think there's something wonderful about inscrutability as well--and mystery, and not knowing exactly who the person is behind the art. It allows you to interact with the art in a more open-ended fashion, and it can be more compelling.

Stanley Kubrick is an obvious starting point for Cordova, of course.

I thought Kubrick was fascinating, not just because of the stories people had about working with him, and the cultish devotion they had to him, but also the public persona of him as an eccentric recluse, a madman, an egomaniac. But from what I've read, he wasn't the ghoulish, larger-than-life figure that people made him out to be. He did have a room full of filing cabinets and an attention to detail that people could say was a little eccentric, but what true artist or genius isn't a little extreme in some fashion?

So what are your extremities?

That's all off the record. I'll be like Cordova. You'll have to dig for them. --Ron Hogan

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