IN A SCENE from Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, one woman tells a story to another woman, who is comatose. As I recall it, the first woman describes how she went to a deserted beach with a girlfriend, where they met a group of adolescent boys, much younger than they, and ended up having sex with them. Bergman’s scene doesn’t show this orgy, only the woman’s telling of it, but it’s incredibly erotic nevertheless, or it’s erotic because we don’t see it firsthand.
I thought of this scene as I read Marisha Pessl’s compelling, accomplished, and flawed second novel Night Film, which investigates and problematizes the lure of stories, true or otherwise.
At the outset of the book, 24-year-old Ashley Cordova, daughter of famed and reclusive horror film director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead, an apparent suicide. Five years prior, investigative journalist Scott McGrath was researching the director when he received an anonymous phone call from a man who claimed to be Cordova’s former chauffeur. Before hanging up, the man says of Cordova, “There’s something he does to the children.” That single claim propelled McGrath to call Cordova “a predator” on Nightline, which quickly led to McGrath’s disgrace when he couldn’t confirm (or even find) his source. With Ashley’s death, however, McGrath resumes his thorny investigation, thus joining a long tradition of fictional characters who just can’t quit, from Captain Ahab in Moby Dick to Jimmy McNulty in The Wire. And thank goodness for that tradition — their obsessions become our own, and those obsessions are what drive stories.
It’s story that is so seductive in this novel, a pleasure immediately ignited by a TIME.com slideshow about Cordova’s life and career — which cleverly and succinctly provides exposition as it whets the reader’s appetite to know an unknowable figure — followed by various documents from McGrath’s previous investigation: notes, interviews, and the occasional photograph. Most of the story is told by McGrath himself, in an energetic (if overly italicized) first-person point of view, but these documents, plopped into the narrative as facsimiles of actual websites or transcripts, render the mystery immediate and chillingly realistic. Ashley’s private medical file, as well as the incident report from her suicide, are also presented as primary texts in the narrative, and when McGrath gets his hands on them, the reader’s heart races as McGrath’s no doubt would. These extratextual documents disrupt and deepen the narrative, and allow the reader to see what McGrath sees.
This collaging of information becomes irresistible — we want to know more, right now. There is real pleasure in piecing together the story, and it’s a skilled writer who can sustain that plot-lust in a reader for almost 600 pages. But Pessl, whose critically acclaimed first novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was called “flashily erudite” by The New York Times, intends to do more with Night Film than create straight suspense. Her inclusion of web pages, newspaper articles, and medical documents to tell the story suggests as much, for it challenges traditional notions of how a story gets told.
But do these narrative choices successfully move Night Film into innovative territory? The answer is both yes and no, for Pessl balances the unexpected with straightforward storytelling, taking cues from traditional thrillers and horror narratives.
In addition to its noirish, broken-but-still-sharp detective hero, the novel utilizes a number of genre tropes. In particular, the twists in McGrath’s story echo the conventions of horror films — starting with the danger to, and of, children. Take a creepy kid or two, mix in a moldy, water-logged doll, add a secretive mental hospital and a sprinkle of witchcraft, and you’ve got yourself a horror mash-up.
But is it scary? And if it isn’t scary, is it intellectually daring?
The book’s nods and winks at the horror genre do make a certain logical sense. For one, McGrath has found himself entangled in an investigation that gets darker and more frightening as it progresses, so much so that he begins to feel as though he’s trapped inside a film of Cordova’s own making. McGrath is thus coming face-to-face with true fear; he’s living the very stories that scare us. It’s book-as-scary-movie, which is its own kind of pleasing genre mindbender: a novel that’s like a film that’s like a novel that’s like a film.
The use of such tropes is also narrative shorthand: hotel hallways were never the same after The Shining, for instance, just as the woods were tainted by The Blair Witch Project. Pessl counts on these connections, these connotations, to make her reader cringe and feel nervous, shouting, “Don’t go in there!” Such play is either conscientious self-consciousness ... or reactionary fiction writing. Either way, for me, while the allusions were enjoyable, they kept me from being truly scared: they were just too familiar. Conversely, the universe of Cordova fascinated me: it’s richly imagined and surprising, complete with film synopses, actor lore, and a secret message boards for überfans. Pessl’s construction of a filmmaker’s entire career is impressive, especially because the films she imagines are so disconcerting. Unfortunately, McGrath’s story suffers by comparison; though the reporter-detective may feel that he’s in one of the director’s films, Stanislas Cordova wouldn’t make this movie. Night Film doesn’t incite mortal fear, as Cordova’s movies supposedly do.
And although the novel’s internet snippets stretch the story in refreshing new directions, and underscore the rabbit-hole nature of McGrath’s search — the internet being the ultimate rabbit hole — very little of the story is actually dispensed in this way. For much of Night Film, the story is told traditionally, with straightforward mystery-solving scenes, and Pessl relies on the aforementioned familiar tropes to push us forward. We learn about Ashley and her father mainly through the stories people tell our narrator. Revelation occurs via storytelling, which is fitting for a book about a fictional director and his life-changing films, which the reader can only read about, secondhand. There is an overheard quality to the narrative that teases and piques — and satisfies, for these conversations also reveal more about Ashley’s suicide and her father’s reclusiveness.
In Bergman’s Persona, the scene I described has the capacity to arouse the viewer, move her. Pessl often strives for a similar effect — to scare, to jolt, via the indirect, via story. With this technique, Night Film reminds us that what we want access to can be reached not through artifacts but only through narrative: indirect, incomplete, and dangerously personal. At times, however, the novel relies so much on these confessions that it reads like a long Law and Order episode, where the detectives (in this case, McGrath and the two young people, Nora and Hopper, who join him on his adventure), question one colorful character after another in his or her natural habitat — the high society New Yorker, the bachelor party entertainer, the latex-gloved tattoo artist — puzzling over clues as they go. It feels too easy, but then again, the first half of every Law and Order episode is the most exciting, and Pessl knows how plot works: it’s a gathering of information.
Where the novel falters, in this lust and gather of information, is the sheer volume and depth of that information. There are so many twists and then-the-plot-thickens moments in the final third of the book that the story occasionally feels bloated, overstuffed. In Pessl’s desire to create a hall-of-mirrors story, where all is not what it seems, the novel sometimes loses sight of the mystery, of what exactly Scott McGrath is looking for. Maybe that’s Pessl’s point, to blur her hero’s desires, and thus our own, but it makes the book feel overly long, too complicated for its own good.
The end of Night Film leaves us with more questions than answers, which is both beautiful and appropriate for a novel that resists clear solutions and buries mystery within mystery. Despite this ambiguous ending, the reader is left with one sustaining notion, which has persisted throughout the novel: that of a brilliant artist who exerted control over his masterpieces with a force that is both magnificent and degrading. But this conception of the inviolable creator feels rather retrograde in a postmodern world where fan fiction and re-blogging have been fully absorbed into the cultural conversation, and where The Author has been dead for decades. It’s appropriate that the Cordova family often recites T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to each other, since that poem is almost a hundred years old. For all its postmodern winks, Night Film maintains an early 20th-century, high modernist conception of the artist. Even as she experiments, Pessl doesn’t ever fully let go of the old-fashioned.
Maybe that’s disappointing. Maybe that’s what makes it such a good yarn. What can’t be argued with is Marisha Pessl’s dedication to a reality she built from scratch. She has constructed a world that’s engrossing, vivid, and deeply imagined. How the reader interacts with her world — well, that’s not up to her.
What if I told you I’d never seen Persona? What if I told you that I have only heard my husband describe to me that famous scene? What if I told you that this movie I’ve never seen is as vivid to me as any other cultural product I’ve consumed in the last few years? If you’ve read Night Film, you’d understand. The imagined films of Stanislas Cordova didn’t affect me in the same way as my imagined Persona has, but I am sure they will persist in the darkness of other readers.