Dispatch One: NIGHT FILM, by Marisha Pessl

I can only write book reviews on ships headed nowhere. When I boarded the cruise ship at the Aleutians they checked me for lice. Maybe this was protocol, maybe I asked. Anyway, I offered my scalp gratis to the sailor’s comb.

“Back in World War II, the Japanese…” the steward may have said. I did not want to hear his banal tour of the sour past.

“What year are we in?” I yelled.

I saw the world arranged in soggy newspaper headlines, unreadable like bottled letters lovers send to sea.

 

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Fortunately, I kept Marisha Pessl’s newest novel Night Film in tow. I was intrigued at the author’s switch to literary mystery, her first novel (Special Topics In Calamity Physics) being a foot soldier in the Dave-Eggers-Jonathan-Safron-Foer Clever Army. I am always inspired by authors who are able to switch genres. The premise was intriguing, too: an elusive shock/horror film director, his dark oeuvre and a near occult worship of him. Lee Child had a review on the dust jacket. That was enough.

If I were in a car, I would say to you “buckle up” but there were no buckles on this cruise ship. We left the port.

Night Film concerns the mystery surrounding the apparent suicide of Stanislas Cordova’s twenty-four year old daughter Ashley. Stanislas is a revered director: one could say a short circuit between the shock-innovation of Lars Von Trier and Gasper Noé, the beautiful visuals of Andrei Tarkovsky, a misty hollow where cults meet, and a clandestine multi-spoused recluse-father.

Scott McGrath, a journalist who slandered (he would say set up by) Cordova in the past, vows to clear his own name by investigating this new suicide with the help of two young people, Hopper and Nora.

The novel opens with a quote from him that this reader took as fact, which immediately bolsters the world of the book. McGrath says that everyone has “their own Cordova story” and Night Film assures by the end of the novel you will too. See, the novel opens with McGrath running through a park in a bourbon-induced haze. Multiple times he spots a young woman bedecked with an unmistakable red coat. She follows him everywhere. After this freak encounter with the apparition, we turn the page to see the dark, sallow, shadowed face of a young girl on a New York Times New York Regional page with the headline “Ashley Cordova, 24, Found Dead.”

I admit—I was shocked and impressed.

 

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My hetero-traveling partner was an older fellow by the name of Doug “Smeared” Bodecky. He earned the name from my aunt—a woman endowed with rambling, gambling, and other various tropes of 1940’s folk music. Smeared stood on the entertainment deck donning a monocle bearing no lens. I went to find the First Mate to see, in general, when meals were served. In the distance I saw a lone island with a palm tree, much akin to a generic desktop wallpaper or a motivation poster adhered to a dentist’s ceiling to make one feel escapist, alone, on vacation. After encountering the real thing, I only felt how it did, out there.

The First Mate told me they served meals three times a day.

“What year do you think this is?” he said.

“You checked my ticket, you know. Don’t keep this secret knowledge from me,” I said.

“Can you read?” he said.

“Can you?” I said, like a child.

I could.

Some children in dock laborer caps were pointing, laughing. Smeared was in the middle of the shuffleboard court, holding a pool cue in his right hand like he was blessing a whorehouse with a scepter. There were no billiards tables for miles. I didn’t have enough pity inside of myself to tell him what was and wasn’t true.

 

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Perhaps the best part of Night Film is its use of multimedia within the page. After the New York Times introduction to Ashley Cordova’s death, an eighteen page slideshow catches the reader up on all of Stanislas Cordova’s life, work and legacy faster than eighteen pages of prose ever could. This is an interesting move for the narrator to use reader-found objects (there is no “character filter” for the first twenty pages) for the sake of a more reader-tangible plot (one thinks of the multimedia use in Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter from A Visit From The Goon Squad but Pessl’s pyrotechnics are purely informative, rather than look-at-me-I’m-a-writer-being-edgy). As a reader, we respond directly to these multimedia objects—without the filter of a character—and form our own responses.

After McGrath’s initial encounter with this apparition in the prologue, one connects that woman with Ashley Cordova’s image presented on the first page of the novel. It takes McGrath much longer to put that together. What is brilliant about this approach is that these found objects both inform the characters with information and give readers immediate access to Night Film’s information heavy world.

 

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Smeared hated jelly. He told me that one morning at our sea-farer-themed breakfast.

I asked for my eggs sunny side up.

“What way is the sun, really?” the server said, pointing to the sky.

“Why does everyone on this vessel ask so many questions?” Smeared said.

“Exactly.”

“Where are you from?” I said.

“Jesus, you too?” he said.

“Exactly.”

She left for the kitchen.

A lone old man that wasn’t Smeared tried to reach for her bottom, but no, no treasure for that old man this time.

 

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Night Film could have used more multimedia—it seemed to be holding back, at times. The Blackboards and the “deep web” fansite dedicated to Cordova and his films, one that McGrath and crew labor to access—these could have been further exploited. Near the end of the book, McGrath rambles for pages and pages on the significance of themes, imagery, and props in various Cordova films. I found myself asking for simple slides, supplemental info panes, or possible fan-made work, or even foot or endnotes. Anything but thick, rambling paragraphs. One can only tolerate being adrift in the constellations of an author’s symbols for so long.

Regardless of Night Film’s shortcomings, it is a wildly ambitious work. It is an I-want-to-cancel-my-plans-with-humanity-seclude-myself-and-read-literary-mystery book. It is the Gone Girl for people who like to think.

You’ll read Night Film so fast you’ll feel guilty. Then you’ll read it again.

 

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That night Smeared put me on his lap for a story. I was not accustomed to this strange custom.

“Where are you from, Doug?” I said.

“No one uses my Christian name, anymore,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure there are not mentions of Douglas in the Bible,” I said.

“LIKE HELL SHE AIN’T!” he said from one of his dreams again. Some call it a seizure. Some call it sleep. I waited.

I had to adjust his monocle when he came to. I brushed his sparse hair out his eye. I combed his eyebrows. The rest of his head was an empty birds nest. I didn’t know where we were, only that Smeared was full of stories and no one to listen. I had many more books to read.

“Montana,” he said. “Probably.”

He said this with a softness and lack of authority that only comes in recalling childhood, but it was a softness so hoarse it shook him. Even back then he was an old man, too.

 

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Night Film is now available in hardcover through Random House.

Marisha Pessl is on a book tour, too. See her in your city.

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