Review: Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Hurrah, I have convinced my beautiful and intelligent mother to write a guest post for me on Marisha Pessl’s new book Night Film. Whiskey Jenny and I discussed it on the podcast, and now you may also hear a third view, that of my mumsy. This review is certified spoiler-free.


This is what Marisha Pessl’s new novel Night Film is like:  It’s like walking into your living room to find a live kangaroo in there.  It’s unexpected, it’s pretty scary, it’s extremely lively and very uninhibited; it feels dangerous and destructive, and at the same time, almost comically absurd.  And if you quickly close the door, and drag some Animal Control people back to your house, you are likely to find the whole familiar room unrecognizable, the windows smashed, no kangaroo in sight, and the Animal Control people having eye conversations with each other and discreetly twirling their index fingers against their temples.  You will wonder if you have lost touch with reality.  That’s Night Film.

Note from Jenny: That spot-on observation reminds me of this XKCD cartoon, which I cannot resist sharing because it charms me.

The story, as narrated by disgraced investigative reporter Scott McGrath, begins with the discovery of the broken body of Ashley Cordova , age 24, in an abandoned warehouse, an apparent suicide.  Her father, the celebrated horror film director Stanislas Cordova, hasn’t given an interview or been seen in years, ever since a copycat murderer duplicated a gruesome murder from one of his films.  His disturbing films are nonetheless still being screened in underground settings by rabid fans known as “Cordovites,” who also maintain “black sites” on the internet  — sites which are only accessible to the initiated.  Ash herself, “the Enchanter’s Daughter,” is the stuff of legends, a mysterious presence with uncanny gifts.  In the course of his investigation of her death, Scott stumbles upon bizarre fetishistic objects, cryptic messages, purveyors of dark magic, a creepy false priest. Marisha Pessl is not shying away from the Crazy – she is piling it on faster than her hero and his allies can shovel through it.

Night Film is an illustrated novel, with generous dollops of photos, magazine interviews, mysterious webpages and newspaper articles.  I was enchanted with these and wished with all my heart that there were more – seriously, I would have paid twice the price to get twice as many internet articles. I absolutely adored this aspect of the novel, and I loved the way Pessl  heaped up the plot points like her story was a plate of loaded nachos.  She just seemed to be having so much fun with it that even a wimpy reader like me (one who can’t watch even the campiest horror film) was swept up and enthralled with every dark turn of the author’s imagination.

I do have to say something about the italics.  Scott can’t pen the simplest sentence without dramatic emphasis in the form of italics.  It was weird!  I kept wondering if perhaps Pessl was using the italics to send a coded message vital to the plot line.  On reflection, however, I think that this constant italicization was simply another device for Pessl to convey what ultimately seemed to me the central theme of the novel: that human beings need stories in order to cope with unbearable realities, and that a very dramatic story — a story with blinding lights and pitch-black shadows — is not only  the best kind, but also the kind most likely to actually become reality.

Cover report (by Jenny, not Mumsy): I initially thought the British cover was better, but now I have swung back around to preferring the American one. The British cover conveys the circles-within-circles quality of the book, but the American cover has fuzzy edges, and this is emphatically not a sharp-edged book.

  • There was a bit too much crazy for me, and a bit too much contrivance at the end, and I so wish I could stud this sentence with italics!

    • I can totally understand that. This is definitely olives as opposed to apple pie. It is not everyone’s novel – and even if it were, you would still have to be feeling energetic to read it.

  • Hmmm. I’ve been seeing praise for this book all over the place, but this is the first review that actually makes me want to read it! I could do with a big dose of crazy.

    • Aww, that warms the cockles. It IS a big dose of crazy. With a side of crackslaw.

  • I think I love your mom.

  • I have yet to read Marisha Pessl, but would like to very much, and I think I could deal with the crazy, lord knows my own life has enough of it. Thank you for the interesting review – definitely a book on my to-be-considered list.

    • You might want to start with her first novel to gear up. She’s a lovely, funny writer.

  • anna

    I really love that comic too.

    • Right? Jenny is so clever. I actually think I was subconsciously picturing that cartoon when I wrote that paragraph.

  • I cannot wait for this to get to the library for me!!! I’m dying to read it!!! Love that first description!! Your mum is awesome.

  • Mumsy IS cool and great. But/and SO. Are. You. That first paragraph is awesome. I had the chance and was extremely tempted to buy the hardback SIGNED that was presented to me at an airport bookstore but I like to travel light and bought a tradeback instead. Which I now regret because I don’t think I’ll finish it (but will if Mumsy says I should? It is The Great Santini????) I didn’t read further than that first paragraph because I like to know NOTHING and am now extremely eager to read this.

    • Mumsy says a big NO to The Great Santiini. I am pretty sure Jenny will back me up on this one.

  • After reading this, I cannot start with the first novel; I must find this one, because if there’s anything my overly quiet, ordinary life needs right now, it’s a lot more crazy.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, oh Jeanne, I give you my solemn word of honor that there will be plenty of crazy to satisfy you in Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

  • “That human beings need stories in order to cope with unbearable realities, and that a very dramatic story — a story with blinding lights and pitch-black shadows — is not only the best kind, but also the kind most likely to actually become reality.” I kind of love this. More than kind of, actually. Great review!

  • I’m supposed to get this book for review and your write-up has me salivating already 🙂

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