OCTOBER 4, 2013
WE’RE ALMOST 200 pages into Night Film, the second novel from Marisha Pessl, before anyone actually sits down and watches a movie. Investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his 19-year-old assistant Nora have settled in to watch Wait for Me Here, a film from the elusive and adored director Stanislas Cordova, an “amoral enchanter,” a man whose dark side McGrath hopes to expose. This particular film features a cameo appearance from the director’s son, who has suffered a vicious wound off-screen. Theo Cordova is “strung-out, half naked, eyes glassy, blood and what looked to be human bit marks covering his bare chest.” Neither McGrath nor Nora can look away, and the two of them watch Wait for Me Here until the wee hours of the morning. “Cordova’s films were addictive opiates,” McGrath explains. “It was impossible to watch just one minute. One craved more and more.”
Pessl’s novel, alas, is no such addictive drug. Inexpertly plotted and peppered with screenshots, Night Film offers not an absorbing reading experience but an alienating one. Reading Night Film is like surfing the internet during a bout of insomnia: you click compulsively from one screen to the next, hoping to find something that will hold your interest, until you finally shut down the computer and settle for staring at the ceiling. Night Film is a novel for the digital age, but if this is the kind of fiction our age produces, then these are dark times indeed.
Of course, such doom saying should be taken with a large grain of salt. Critics have been proclaiming the death of the novel for decades now, ever since the rise of mass media and the alternative forms of storytelling that accompanied it. Radio posed the first threat, but film presented the more pernicious one, if only because people spent surplus time and money on movies rather than books. The 1930s saw the highest rates of movie going, with 65 percent of the US population (around 80 million people) going to the movies each week. (Only 9.7 percent of the nation’s population does the same today.) But if movies stole the time and attention of potential readers, they also delivered employment opportunities to the savvy novelist. For instance, William Faulkner fled to Hollywood when he failed to sell Light in August, and worked as a screenwriter throughout the 1930s and 1940s, composing, among other things, the screenplay for Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon. F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same, and his work on scripts for MGM stabilized his always shaky finances. Vladimir Nabokov satirized popular film and celebrity culture in Lolita, but he still insisted on adapting the novel for the big screen himself. Little of Nabokov’s material made it into the final version of the film, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick, the man after whom Pessl modeled her fictional director Cordova.
Pessl has reported reading biographies of Kubrick as research for Night Film, but in some sense, her research for the book began much earlier. A longtime film buff, Pessl first studied film as a freshman at Northwestern. (She later transferred to Barnard.) Her film education began in earnest when, in the years between her first and second novels, she enrolled in a program at the New York Film Academy and wrote two feature-length screenplays, one of which was a modern-day, comic adaptation of Anna Karenina called Heirheads. But like many a writer before her, Pessl has never felt quite at home in the film industry. Speaking at Night Film’s book launch in Brooklyn, she defended her decision to abandon screenplays and return to the novel. You can have as many characters as you want, she explained, and you don’t need to worry about your budget. Most importantly, “You don’t have this giant committee commenting on your work,” which is to say that you have artistic autonomy and complete control. (Pessl seems to share more with the notoriously controlling Nabokov than a penchant for puns.)
Pessl, though rarely mentioned in the same breath as the giants of American modernism, is nonetheless the latest example in a long tradition of novelists who have engaged with film or with the film industry, and who have demonstrated some degree of ambivalence while doing so. Indeed, the list of novelists at the movies goes on: think of Norman Mailer’s failed directorial efforts of the late 1960s; or Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion’s crack-up novel about an aging actress, for which she co-wrote the screenplay; or, for a more recent example, David Foster Wallace’s nightmarish vision of avant-garde film in Infinite Jest. It is Wallace’s use of film that, in many ways, most closely resembles Pessl’s: both authors place cult filmmakers at the center of their plots, and both ask what the costs and consequences of this kind of filmmaking might be, not only for those who consume such art but also for those who produce it. For Wallace, the consequence is nothing short of death itself: characters who watch Infinite Jest, the last work from avant-garde filmmaker James O. Incandenza, become so paralyzed by pleasure that they die while still staring at the screen. (The filmmaker too suffers a grisly death, one delivered by his own hand.) This plotline is the realization, in literary form, of Wallace’s theory about visual media’s addictive power, a theory developed in his essay “E. Unibus Pluram” and elsewhere.
If, for Wallace, the problem with visual media is that it renders its viewers completely and happily rapt, this same problem is, for Pessl, visual media’s greatest strength. A writer of winding sentences that demand the reader’s careful attention, Wallace designed his novel in opposition to visual culture; Pessl designed her novel in imitation of it. In an effort to create a totally absorbing reading experience, Pessl developed an entire world for her novel, one complete with a Cordova filmography, interpolated facsimiles from McGrath’s dossier on Cordova, and an entire online archive. (In interviews, she has said that creating this sort of backstory is her favorite part of writing a novel, and that she would happily work away in this mode for years if she didn’t have publisher deadlines.) One wonders whether Pessl’s efforts to inundate her readers with materials from this multimedia, extra-textual world doesn’t so much capture a reader’s attention as appeal to his appetite for distraction, an appetite that has only grown stronger in an increasingly digitized world.
And that’s a shame, since Pessl’s first novel was as absorbing a page-turner as one can hope for from a first-time author. Exchanging a bibliography for a filmography is just one way in which Night Film represents a striking departure from Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), a campus novel that is one part Muriel Spark, and one part Donna Tartt, with a dose of Don DeLillo thrown in for good measure. It’s a novel that is Nabokovian in form (word games galore!) and theme (another father–daughter love story, as it were). Like its protagonist Blue Van Meer, Special Topics wears its erudition on its sleeve. The repeated references to the Western canon—everything from Shakespeare to Kerouac to presumably fictional scholarly monographs—seem thematically appropriate for a novel set at an elite prep school, as does Blue’s charismatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider, and the mysterious, almost erotic influence she exerts over her small band of students.
Pessl transposes the narrative structure of her first novel onto Night Film with a few modifications: we have not one but two father–daughter relationships, though neither is as intimate as the one between Blue and Van Meer père, and we have a compelling character who may have played a criminal role in the plot’s central murder mystery. Night Film centers on the suspicious death of Ashley Cordova, the director’s daughter, whom McGrath suspects of some sort perverse activity involving children. McGrath, Nora, and a drug dealer (and former friend of Ashley’s) named Hopper track Cordova’s activities throughout New York City and its environs; their investigation leads them from a warehouse in Chinatown, to a mental institution just outside city limits, to an underground gentleman’s club on Long Island (styled after Eyes Wide Shut) to Cordova’s estate upstate, all the while interviewing various friends and witnesses along the way. These peripatetic road trips have their analogues online, the space in which McGrath gathers information on Cordova by following one link to the next. He gains access to a site for Cordova fans and acolytes called the Blackboards, the home page of which is copied meticulously for our reading pleasure. So too are the online comment sections from Vulture, an 18-page slideshow from TIME.com, and a series of text message exchanges between Hopper and his clients, which are reproduced faithfully as those little speech bubbles that show up when texting on an iPhone, the same iPhone with which you can scan a page from the novel and access additional materials online. There were moments when reading Night Film that I wondered if I held a book or a computer in my hands, so exact were the replicas of the digital world that I saw in front of me.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is a death wish for the artist. The successful novelist competes with other media not by mimicking their strengths but by exposing their weakness. For the novelist, this means doing what no other art form can without seeming gimmicky: namely, depicting a character’s psychological interiority. Other art forms also attempt to accomplish this task — think of Shakespearean soliloquies, or even the voiceovers in the films of Terence Malick — but, in these contexts, the techniques used to render consciousness can only be deployed by the deftest hand. Presenting a character’s inner life, however, has long been the novelist’s bread and butter, whether the technique used to do so is first-person narration (à la Defoe), free indirect discourse (à la Austen), or stream-of-consciousness (à la Woolf). And this is what Pessl does in Special Topics, by providing us with a heroine who filters everyday experiences through the lens of the literary tradition. The fact that the novel is told from Blue’s point of view helps explain the inventive, even nonsensical metaphors that proliferate wildly in Special Topics. A dead woman’s tongue, for instance, is “bloated, the cherry pink of a kitchen sponge,” and her eyes “looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman.” Remembering our narrator’s young age, we might forgive such freewheeling prose, but encountering such description in Night Film, we may not be so generous. It’s hard to believe that a grizzled reporter, looking at his ex-wife, would note “the expressive little mouth that broadcast her every mood with the diligence of a UN translator.” A journalist like McGrath should surely write in a more straightforward style.
Indeed, McGrath has no consistent voice, in part because Night Film has no consistent narrative mode. The book careens from hardboiled detective fiction to Gothic melodrama and back again, changing genres as quickly as one might click from one open tab on a web browser over to another. These two narrative modes are alike in atmosphere but drastically different in terms of literary style, and a single narrative voice cannot sustain both of them. The prologue begins with McGrath speaking like the hardboiled detective — “I should’ve held off on that fourth scotch” — and ends with the same man, now resembling some Gothic heroine, speculating about the appearance of the supernatural:
I realized, as she stepped lower and lower, soaked black hair like ink seeping over her shoulders, that it was she, the girl from the Reservoir, the host — whatever the hell she was.
We continue to oscillate in this way over the course of the novel. Sometimes McGrath is offering wry commentary on the lives of Manhattan’s elites, as on the first page of the first chapter: “Every time I planted myself at these charity soirees, lost scenes from my married life. I wondered why I kept coming. Maybe I liked facing a firing squad.” At other moments, he’s anything but calm, cool, and collected. Glimpsing a little girl clutching a “rotten” baby doll, McGrath reacts first with “revulsion, followed by the urge to run like hell” as a “chill shot down [his] spine.” It’s an inconsistent narrative persona, but it’s one well matched to the novel’s incoherent plot, which can’t seem to decide whether it exists in the secular world of drugs and sex and senility or the supernatural world of demon children, stigmata, voodoo, and crop circles, among other things. By the time we get to Cordova’s estate, which has more in common with Castle Rackrent than any contemporary celebrity compound, we’re in full-on Gothic mode: McGrath, Nora, and Hopper swim through a moat, run from oversize dogs, and wake up trapped in coffins that are contained by, yes, other coffins. We return to Manhattan and its cynical worldliness just in time to tie up the central plotline’s loose ends, but we leave it once again before the novel finishes. Night Film concludes in a weird in-between space, a place not quite of this world, but not exactly outside of it either, and the novel is all the more dissatisfying for its refusal to touch down in either the spiritual world or the secular one. Special Topics ends on a similarly uncertain note, with a reading quiz that calls into question the entire novel that preceded it. Unfortunately, these metafictional conclusions come across as trite rather than clever.
But I am not being entirely accurate. Night Film does, finally, land in one world: the world of mass media. The novel’s very last pages present us with a facsimile from Rolling Stone. It’s Cordova’s last interview, one in which the director compares making movies to telling stories, much in the same way, Pessl implies, as the novelist does: “My films are just stories. The stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves.” But there is nothing particular filmic about Pessl’s narrative style: no cross-cutting as in Fitzgerald, no panoramic views as in Nabokov. And while there are plenty of citations from cinema — ranging from Hitchcock to Tarantino — there are few extended examples of or meditations on the medium itself. The little we get of film comes in the form of oblique, moody descriptions of Cordova’s aesthetic and his artistic persona. We know that to watch a Cordova film is to be plunged into a kind of “darkness,” a darkness that transforms a person:
As if in witnessing such things I was irrevocably breaking myself in (or just breaking myself), arriving at an understanding about humanity so dark, so deep down inside my own soul, I could never go back to the way I was before.
Or so McGrath reports. We know that “the space around Cordova distorts. The closer you get to him, the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.” (Should anyone with a good deal more scientific acumen than I have care to explain this phenomenon, please, be my guest.) We know that Cordova’s personal slogan (one that Pessl has adopted as her own, at least according to her website) is “Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.” Every so often, we get a few plot summaries of the director’s movies, but it’s not until we arrive at the Peak, Cordova’s estate, that we get any more detailed descriptions of just what kind of movies this acclaimed filmmaker made.
Exploring the rooms of the Peak, McGrath soon finds himself within the sets of Cordova’s movies: the living room from Thumbscrew, the landfill from La Douleur, and the greenhouse from Wait for Me Here, to name a few. McGrath, dressed in the costume of one of Thumbscrew’s protagonists, soon falls into some sort of paranoid fantasy or fever dream (or maybe simply a new Cordova movie). These scenes at the Peak, though outlandish, are, to my mind at least, the most interesting part of the novel, playing as they do with the difference between reality and artifice, or (what amounts to the same thing) the convergence of life and art. “Cordova, in his life and art, had blended fantasy and reality,” McGrath recalls near the novel’s end, “and so he seemed to be flagrantly showing off to me, much to my chagrin, such an intermingling of truth and fiction.” After the visit to the Peak, the episode that serves as the novel’s dramatic climax, the decidedly secular (read: scientific) reasons the explain McGrath’s strange evening and that solve the mystery of Ashley’s death represent more than an additional turn of the novel’s genre dialectic: it’s a deflation, a cop-out, an ending even a hardboiled cop wouldn’t love.
In short, Night Film is not very interested in film. It is, however, very interested in digital media, and though Pessl has made ample use of what such media has to offer, she also indicates that the digital world presents a different kind of threat to the modern day artist. “In our modern world of tweeting, TMI, and total exposure,” a TIME.com slide announces on one of the novel’s first pages, “Stanislas Cordova is the exception,” a man safe from the internet’s prying eyes. Pessl knows something about that kind of exposure. Only 27 when her first book was published, she garnered attention for her good looks as well as for her good writing. Writers of book blogs suggested that Pessl’s pretty face, not her prose, earned her a large advance, and her name cropped up regularly on the website Gawker, where her looks were graded first as “book hot,” then, “TV hot” then “Broadway hot.” (That’s a declension narrative, for those unfamiliar.) This Internet frenzy seems to have stuck with Pessl, and she’s responded by appearing in public highly polished and impeccably dressed, not a hair — or a word — out of place. Emily Witt put it best in a profile for Elle: “Pessl gleams.”
Having seen Pessl in person, I can vouch for Witt’s report. Pessl seems to have rehearsed her response to each potential question, and she easily, gracefully deflects the more personal ones, especially questions about her divorce. But the personal creeps into Night Film, in asides on loss and grief and in coded references to heartbreak and longing. Remembering a now-deceased man from her grandmother’s nursing home, Nora admits:
I miss him every single day […] I hate how the people who really get you are the ones you can never hold on to for very long. And the ones who don’t understand you at all stick around. Ever noticed that?
Cordova, for his part, has tried to make a film about his daughter, “But he couldn’t,” or so we’re told. “To write directly about something so gutting is like staring at the sun, day after day. You can’t really make it out, no matter how hard you try. You’re sure to go blind.” Instead of writing about “something so gutting,” Pessl gives us screen after screen, distraction upon distraction, an excess of information that can only be consumed quickly and unthinkingly. What Night Film gives us, finally, is a competing digital world, one that’s entirely under Pessl’s control, one in which she suffers no risk of exposure. She may not go blind, but one hopes she doesn’t linger for too long in the darkness.