Saturday, August 9, 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film  I want my money back!  Okay, maybe Night Film wasn’t that bad.  In fact it started off quite good but then it took a turn into witchcraft and devil worship and lost me.  After than it got utterly ridiculous and there were still more than two hundred pages to go.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning where my reading future seemed so bright.

Stanislas Cordova, a director whose movies are so dark, violent, and overwhelmingly terrifying that mainstream studios won’t back him anymore and theaters won’t show his films.  Given that this takes place in a time when torture porn movies do quite well at the box office it is hard to buy the story about Cordova’s rejection by the mainstream.  Putting that aside, Cordova continues to make movies, writing, editing, and filming them on his huge estate in upstate New York.  Over the years he becomes a recluse, giving his last interview in 1977. 

Scott McGrath is a once well respected, now disgraced investigative reporter.  His disgrace came about essentially because he failed to investigate.  The story that broke him had do with the secretive Cordova.  Like many, McGrath wondered what kind of depraved person makes the kind of movies Cordova does.  One night he gets his answer, sort of.  An anonymous caller claiming to have once worked as a driver for Cordova says he does “something to the children.”  Based on that anonymous call and nothing else McGrath all but calls Cordova a child predator on national TV who should be “terminated with extreme prejudice.”  A lawsuit ensues and McGrath loses.  This all comes in the very beginning of the book so don’t worry, I’m not giving anything way.

Fast forward to the present.  McGrath is once again drawn into Cordova’s orbit when Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, commits suicide. McGrath decides to investigate the suicide.  This is one of the central problems of the book: an investigation where everyone already knows who died (Ashley), how (by jumping into an abandoned elevator shaft) and who did it (Ashley again).  Early on in his investigation McGrath picks up two sidekicks: Hopper and Nora.  Hopper tags along because he once knew Ashley and wants to know what happened to her.  Nora’s connection to Ashley is a little less substantial.  She was working as a coat check girl.  Ashley checked her coat and never returned to pick it up.

In the last interview he gave Cordova said mortal fear was crucial to life and challenged people to face fear or “live in the dark delusion that the commercial world insists we remain sealed inside”.  McGrath, Nora and Hopper, I suppose, decide to face the fear begin looking for the “truth” about Ashley and by extension, her father.

For the first 200 pages I thought, this is a really good, bad book.  Bad because every clue conveniently leads to another.  There is always a perfect explanation to explain something weird.  Still it was good because I couldn't help but turn the page.  It reminded me of Dan Brown’s books - totally implausible but compelling.  Those first 200 pages had me hooked.  I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next.  Then all of sudden there were witches and devil worshipers and it lost me.  Night Film doesn’t start out as a horror story or anything close so the turn to the occult just didn’t feel genuine.  It felt like a red herring from the start and because it felt like a red herring, any sense of tension, urgency or fear drained away.  It was also around this point that I began to wonder what McGrath and his sidekicks were hoping to find.  Cordova comes off as a weird guy into weird things but there is never really any indication or description of some specific bad thing that he did.  The idea that bad things may have happened on Cordova's estate years ago floats around in the background but I needed something more concrete to buy into the mystery or care about McGrath's investigation.

One other strange thing about this book - the italics.  They are everywhere for no discernible reason.  Take this sentence: “As if by black magic, a boy in a truck passed me, backed up, and offered me a ride.”  Why does “if by black magic” need to italicized?  Why is this detail so important?  To put this into context, McGrath’s rental car breaks down on the side of the road and another driver stops and asks if McGrath needs a ride.  Why this would suggest magic, let along black magic, I’m not sure.  Sometimes people are nice and stop to help when they see other people stuck on the side of the road.  It isn’t magic and if were, it would probably be whatever the opposite of black magic is.  But forgetting whether this was magic or not, why the italics?

While the italics were confounding and annoying, the craftsmanship of the book is spectacular.  The paper is really soft and sturdy.  This may seem like an odd thing to comment on but the quality of the paper is so outstanding it should be acknowledged.  It was one of the first things I noticed when I picked up the book in the store.  I would even say it was one of the reasons I chose it.

Reading over my review it sounds like I hated Night Film.  I didn’t.  The first third was compelling and intriguing.  Unfortunately it then veered into left field.  Still, I admire the ambition of the book even though I didn't completely like the execution.

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