Marisha Pessl's literary thriller following by seven years her splashy debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics captures something true about the viral, jumpy, surface-skittering way we live now. In an age of the infinitely reproducible, Pessl strives for innovation through remix rather than originality. Clichés and too-familiar tropes are prized playthings for her, and the more the merrier. Nothing is new in Night Film except for the abandon with which the author piles on references to movies and magazines and websites and other books; yet by mimicking the frantic hypertexture of contemporary life, the novel keeps reminding us just how much has changed.
Night Film's narrator is Scott McGrath, a New York City–based investigative reporter who was sued for defamation in 2006 while probing too closely into the activities of a reclusive, Oscar-winning director named Stanislas Cordova. In the wake of the lawsuit, McGrath's marriage went kerflooey, his high-flying career tanked, and he's been left to brood in his Perry Street apartment, alone with his memories and a forlorn movie poster of Alain Delon on his office wall.
Cut to October 2011, with breaking news that Cordova's beautiful twenty-four-year-old daughter, Ashley, has been found dead in the elevator shaft of an empty Chinatown warehouse. Was it suicide or murder? Was she troubled by inner demons, assaulted by someone she knew, or stalked by strangers? And how involved was her father, the sinister, shadowy Cordova a grand master of horror flicks, notorious for blurring the line between appearance and reality? Intrigued, McGrath grabs the opportunity to restore his reputation by pursuing the case. Along the way, he picks up two helpful young sidekicks: a nineteen-year-old coat-check girl named Nora and Hopper, a small-time drug dealer with a heart of gold and a vague personal history that just might have included an association with Ashley Cordova.
A brash stylistic maneuver energizes the novel's opening pages, in which Pessl presents facts about Ashley's life and death through a series of website simulations, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other realistic-looking documents. In a faux NewYorkTimes.com article, Ashley (or, more accurately, an uncredited stand-in for her) stares challengingly in an accompanying photo, looking a bit like a sulkier young Amanda Peet, while a Time.com slideshow clicks through the particulars of Stanislas Cordova's life, including his three ex-wives and the 300- acre Adirondacks estate that has been his home since 1976 and has served as the location for most of his films.
It's not the content of these simulations that feels new here: some of it's cheesy, and all of it looks conventional. Instead, what's revelatory is the way it draws the reader into the story, precisely mimicking the way one would conduct an Internet search if Cordova actually existed, and thus making the reader complicit with McGrath in searching for clues to Ashley's death. Even more clever is the fact that some of the more fawning profiles of Ashley a page from the Amherst College newsletter, for example, which slobbers over her teenage years as a piano prodigy recall the amped-up media attention Pessl herself received when her first novel was published in 2006. Cheeky, playful, meta, twee: love it or hate it, this apprehension of our current moment at least as it exists for the readers most likely to pick up this book is as accurate as any contemporary novel could hope to be.
Pessl more or less abandons the visual aids about halfway through the narrative, but she sustains the atmosphere of ceaseless replication in other ways. Everything here, in fact, is a hologram, a spectral presence that purposefully suggests a thousand other things. (Not for nothing is Pessl's favorite figure of speech the simile, comparing like with like: the simile for her is as the footnote was for David Foster Wallace, a signature and a manifesto.) Cordova recalls a bit of Kubrick and Polanski here, a touch of David Cronenberg and Karl Atticus there. His creepy sprawling estate, called The Peak, brings to mind The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski's alt-novel House of Leaves. There's a nefarious priest straight out of The Exorcist, sophisticated Manhattan witches like those in Rosemary's Baby, a high-end secret sex club like the one in Eyes Wide Shut, ash circles and weird piles of twigs borrowed from The Blair Witch Project, and on and on. Ominous totems are everywhere. Ashley's red coat, "that blood red stitch in the night," tries to conjure the same fear as the red plastic raincoat in Don't Look Now, while other portents include a compass, a locked box, a disfigured baby doll, a man's herringbone jacket, a child's bloody shirt.
Night Film, as these lists suggest, is all MacGuffins and no Jimmy Stewart. Scott McGrath isn't a credible enough tour guide through this world: he's slick and flat as a pop-up ad, and other key figures in the book sound too much like him. We follow him down a lot of random roads both urban and rural, some of them imaginatively atmospheric, but none of them particularly scary or thrilling. For a story about the titillations of horror, this has virtually none. It's too episodic to maintain any suspense, and there is, even in the secret sex club, zero sex.
But I don't believe that Pessl set out to satisfy the conventions of a traditional novel, and so to argue the effectiveness here of character or plot is to miss the point of the book. I think Pessl is setting up a mirror to show us our distracted, entertainment-drunk culture, where there's a precedent for every pop-culture reference, an information link for every personality, an Echo for every Narcissus. She's blithely unconcerned, as she was in her first novel, with any suggestion of depth. Speed and volume are her articles of faith, as they must be ours. "Life was a freight train barreling toward just one stop, our loved ones streaking past our windows in blurs of color and light," McGrath intones at the novel's end, with a timeless cinematic flourish. "There was no holding on to any of it, and no slowing it down."
Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewer: Donna Rifkind
Read an Excerpt
New York City
Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.
Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his movies in an old box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again. Or, your boyfriend bragged he’d discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching, refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he’d barely survived.
Whatever your opinion of Cordova, however obsessed with his work or indifferent—-he’s there to react against. He’s a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world. He’s underground, looming unseen in the corners of the dark. He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.
He’s a myth, a monster, and a mortal man.
And yet, I can’t help but believe when you need him the most, Cordova has a way of heading straight toward you, like a mysterious guest you notice across the room at a crowded party. In the blink of an eye, he’s right beside you by the fruit punch, staring back at you when you turn and casually ask the time.
My Cordova tale began for the second time on a rainy, mid-October night, when I was just another man running in circles, going nowhere as fast as I could. I was jogging around Central Park’s Reservoir after two A.Ma risky habit I’d adopted during the past year when I was too strung out to sleep, hounded by an inertia I couldn’t explain, except for the vague understanding that the best part of my life was behind me, and that sense of possibility I’d once had so innately as a young man, was now gone.
It was cold and I was soaked. The gravel track was rutted with puddles, the black waters of the Reservoir cloaked in mist. It clogged the reeds along the bank and erased the outskirts of the Park as if it were nothing but paper, the edges torn away. All I could see of the grand buildings along Fifth Avenue were a few gold lights burning through the gloom, reflecting on the water’s edge like dull coins tossed in. Every time I sprinted past one of the iron lampposts, my shadow surged past me, quickly grew faint, and then peeled offas if it didn’t have the nerve to stay.
I was bypassing the south gatehouse, starting my sixth lap, when I glanced over my shoulder and saw someone was behind me.
A woman was standing in front of a lamppost, her face in shadow, her red coat catching the light behind her, making a vivid red slice in the night.
A young woman out here alone? Was she crazy?
I turned back, faintly irritated by the girl’s naivetéor recklessness, whatever it was that brought her out here. Women of Manhattan, magnificent as they were, they forgot sometimes they weren’t immortal. They could throw themselves like confetti into a fun-filled Friday night, with no thought as to what crack they fell into by Saturday.
The track straightened north, rain needling my face, the branches hanging low, forming a crude tunnel overhead. I veered past rows of benches and the curved bridge, mud splattering my shins.
The woman—-whoever she was—-appeared to have disappeared.
But thenfar ahead, a flicker of red. It vanished as soon as I saw it, then seconds later, I could make out a thin dark silhouette walking slowly in front of me along the iron railing. She was wearing black boots, her dark hair hanging halfway down her back. I picked up my pace, deciding to pass her exactly when she was beside a lamppost so I could take a closer look and make sure she was all right.
As I neared, however, I had the marked feeling she wasn’t.
It was the sound of her footsteps, too heavy for such a slight person, the way she walked so stiffly, as if waiting for me. I suddenly had the feeling that as I passed she’d turn and I’d see her face was not young as I’d assumed, but old. The ravaged face of an old woman would stare back at me with hollowed eyes, a mouth like an axe gash in a tree.
She was just a few feet ahead now.
She was going to reach out, seize my arm, and her grip would be strong as a man’s, ice cold—-
I ran past, but her head was lowered, hidden by her hair. When I turned again, she’d already stepped beyond the light and was little more than a faceless form cut out of the dark, her shoulders outlined in red.
I took off, taking a shortcut as the path twisted through the dense shrubbery, branches whipping my arms. I’ll stop and say something when I pass her again-—tell her to go home.
But I logged another lap and there was no sign of her. I checked the hill leading down to the bridle paths.
Within minutes, I was approaching the north gatehouse—-a stone building beyond the reach of the lamps, soaked in darkness. I couldn’t make out much more than a flight of narrow stairs leading up to a rusted set of double doors, which were chained and locked, a sign posted beside them: KEEP OUT PROPERTY OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK.
As I neared, I realized in alarm, glancing up, that she was there, standing on the landing, staring down at me. Or was she looking through me?
By the time her presence fully registered I’d already run blindly on. Yet, what I’d glimpsed in that split-second drifted in front of my eyes as if someone had taken a flash picture: tangled hair, that blood red coat decayed brown in the dark, a face so entirely in shadow it seemed possible it wasn’t even there.
Clearly I should’ve held off on that fourth scotch.
There was a time not too long ago when it took a little more to rattle me. Scott McGrath, a journalist who’d go to hell just to get Lucifer on the record, some blogger had once written. I’d taken it as a compliment. Prison inmates who’d tattooed their faces with shoe polish and their own piss, armed teenagers from Vigário Geral strung out on pedra, Medellin heavies who vacationed yearly at Ricker’snone of it made me flinch. It was all just part of the scenery.
Now, a woman in the dark was unnerving me.
She had to be drunk. Or she’d popped too many Xanax. Or maybe this was some sick teenage darean Upper East Side mean girl had put her up to this. Unless it was all a calculated setup and her street-rat boyfriend was somewhere here, waiting to jump me.
If that were the idea they’d be disappointed. I had no valuables on me except my keys, a switchblade, and my MetroCard, worth about eight bucks.
Alright, maybe I was going through a rough patch, dry spellwhatever the hell you wanted to call it. Maybe I hadn’t defended myself sincewell, technically the late nineties. But you never forgot how to fight for your life. And it was never too late to remember, unless you were dead.
The night felt unnaturally silent, still. That mistit had moved beyond the water into the trees, overtaken the track like a sickness, an exhaust off something in the air here, something malignant.
Another minute and I was approaching the north gatehouse. I shot past it, expecting to see her on the landing.
It was deserted. There was no sign of her anywhere.
Yet, the longer I ran, the path unspooling like an underpass to some dark new dimension in front of me, the more I found the encounter unfinished, a song that had cut out on an expectant note, a film projector sputtering to a halt seconds before a pivotal chase scene, the screen going white. I couldn’t shake the powerful feeling that she was very much here, hiding somewhere, watching me.
I swore I caught a whiff of perfume embroidered into the damp smells of mud and rain. I squinted into the shadows along the hill, expecting, at any moment, the bright red cut of her coat. Maybe she’d be sitting on a bench or standing on the bridge. Had she come here to harm herself? What if she climbed up onto the railing, waiting, staring at me with a face drained of hope before stepping off, falling to the road far below like a bag of stones?
Maybe I’d had a fifth scotch without realizing. Or this damned city had finally gotten to me. I took off down the steps, heading down East Drive and out onto Fifth Avenue, rounding the corner onto East Eighty-sixth Street, the rain turning into a downpour. I jogged three blocks, past the shuttered restaurants, bright lobbies with a couple of bored doormen staring out.
At the Lexington entrance to the subway, I heard the rumble of an approaching train. So I sprinted down the next flight, swiping my MetroCard through the turnstiles. A few people were waiting on the platform—-a couple of teenagers, an elderly woman with a Bloomingdale’s bag.
The train careened into the station, screeching to a halt and I stepped into an empty car.
“This is a Brooklyn-bound four train. The next stop is Fifty-ninth Street.”
Shaking off the rain, I stared out at the deserted benches, an ad for a sci-fi action movie covered in graffiti. Someone had blinded the sprinting man on the poster, scribbling out his eyes with black marker.
The doors pounded closed. With a moan of brakes, the train began to pull away.
And then, suddenly, I was aware, coming slowly down the steps in the far corner—-shiny black boots and red, a red coat. 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 ghostwhatever the hell she was. But before I could comprehend this impossibility, before my mind could shout, She was coming for me, the train whipped into the tunnel, the windows went black, and I was left staring only at myself.