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.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

To quote the bit that charmed me into buying it:

[D]ue to her “troubles”, she’d voluntarily admitted herself to a “Narnia kind of place” where people talked about their feelings and learned to watercolor fruit. Jade hinted excitedly that a “really huge rock star” had been in residence on her floor, the comparatively well-adjusted third floor (“not as suicidal as the fourth or as manic as the second”) and they’d become “close,” but to reveal his name would be to forsake everything she’d learned during her ten-month “growth period” at Heathridge Park. (Jade now, I realized, saw herself as some sort of herbaceous vine or creeper.) One of the parameters of her “graduation,” she explained (she used this world, probably because it was preferable to “release”) was that she tie up Loose Ends.

I was a loose End.

Recommended by:

I have just this minute finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I am in the process of deciding what I think. I went to some trouble to obtain it – first buying it at the bookstore and then getting it from the library in order to screen it and decide whether I want to own it – and I intended to have a definitive answer (I’ll be honest, I was expecting a definitive yes) as soon as I finished it.

Frankly, I suspect the only reason I haven’t got a definitive answer is that I gave in to the brainwashing by modern society. All through the book I was thinking, I really want to read the end of this book, and every time I thought it, I said to myself, Now Jenny, this is just irrational. You know about delayed gratification, and it’s going to be so much better if you let yourself be surprised.

This is a mindset that has arisen since the Harry Potter books, namely since the sixth one, when I just glanced at the end to check whether Ginny was going to be okay – for God’s sake, Harry deserves a little happiness! I was thinking hysterically, it being extremely late and myself being the only one awake and in a foreign country – and of course my eye fell on the sentence that said who died. Sheesh. Though in a way it was good because I didn’t have to worry about anyone else dying, but in some ways it was really unfortunate, because every time that character was around I’d be like This is it! This is the end! This is the last time I will ever see you! And I regretted it in that one instance, but the Harry Potter books are an exception to my general read-the-end-as-soon-as-you-logically-can policy, and I shouldn’t have let them throw me off to this extent.

It’s gone too far and I have to stop it. Some people don’t like reading the end; I am the kind of person who likes to read the endings. When you read the end, you enjoy the middle a lot more. Especially in mysteries of the non-Agatha Christie variety. And if I had read the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I believe quite firmly that I would presently be writing a glowing review of the book. As it is I’m not sure that it was quite fair of Ms. Pessl (I wrote “far of Ms. Pessl”, which is certainly also true) to have the tremendous long build-up in the first two-thirds of the book before beginning the dizzying descent into comprehending all of the events you more or less thought you already comprehended anyway. See, if I had read the end and I knew everything, I’d have been like, Whoa, dude, this is prettttttty craaaaazy right here and I am enjoying it A LOT.

So thanks, world, for brainwashing me into reading books your boring-ass pedestrian way of reading books. Don’t take this as criticism. I’m just saying that when you don’t know what shit means until you finish the book, then that incredibly valuable and wondrous thing, The First Time You Read It, gets completely screwed up and ruined because you’ve missed all the layers even though they were there all along. Which is too bad because I’m completely in love with the end of this book. I love insanity. The greater the scope of (book-based) insanity, the better, because I am a sucker for the grandeur of the fictional and insane. I just would have loved this book more if I’d known how completely insane it was in the first place.

I seriously can’t decide if I want to keep my purchased copy. Can’t decide, can’t decide. I love the madness of the end. I really do. I’m just not sure if it makes up for the bits in the middle where I was thinking, Oh my God, get over your frantic desire to make shiny new similes because although sometimes they are very nice and really clever, there are also times when I want to PULL OFF YOUR FACE for the assaults you are perpetrating on English prose.

That reaction was unfairly vehement – only because the stakes were high on account of my having spent some of my Christmas Bongs & Noodles credit on this book and being stressed about whether to Keep It or Return It. It is, however, true that Ms. Pessl occasionally allows herself to become enamored of her prose to the exclusion, or at least partial exclusion, of moving the plot along in an interesting manner. This is, mind you, only before – well, I’d say before the bit where Milton and Blue go over to Hannah’s house. Page 389ish.

I think what would have made this book drastically better for the first two-thirds would have been the fleshing-out of the Bluebloods. We see a lot of them, but they aren’t ultimately all that interesting. Cardboard cut-outs a bit. They’re too focused on Hannah without ever really being very much themselves, which may be because they’re not ultimately relevant, but shit, if they’re going to be in there for such a quantity of pages, at least make them fun to read about.

Nevertheless, I think I will probably read this again sometime. It’s only a question of whether I’ll be reading my own purchased-Christmas-2007 copy or a copy belonging to my local library.

Edit later to add: The more I think about Special Topics, the more I think I really like it.  (Too bad I already returned it.)  I believe that my difficulty was that I was under the impression that it was a coming-of-age novel, and if it had been primarily a coming-of-age novel, it would have had to be more tightly written, and I got frustrated when it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Actually it’s a mystery.  See, if I’d known, I don’t think I’d have bogged down in the same way.  So I am going to go with, This is a very excellent book (except the Bluebloods could still have been more interesting).