The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sovereign, Deadly, Perfect

Somewhere in an abandoned subway tunnel of New York, a guerrilla film screening is about to begin.  The film was never released, and bootleg copies are rare.  A group of rabid fans has followed hidden clues and mysterious graffiti markings to gather here, in the dark, to watch a horrifying psychological thriller helmed by Oscar-winning auteur Stanislas Cordova. 

Critics’ darling Cordova took the movie world by storm and won an Oscar for Thumbscrew, but then as his work became more disturbing, he was dropped by the major studios.  He retreated to his Adirondack estate, The Peak, where he continued to produce films which never saw general distribution.  One can only see them in floating screenings as above.  Cordova gave one interview to Rolling Stone in the '70s.  The rest is silence.

In homage to his searing films, fans—called Cordovites—are tasked to challenge themselves to see the world’s possibilities.  They use horror to push past the morality and mundanity of everyday life and “suck the marrow” out of experience.  Except, instead of being outdoorsy like Thoreau, they hold secret screenings of Cordova’s movies in sewers and try to scare the crap out of each other.  

Never heard of Cordova?  Yeah, well, that’s because he doesn’t actually exist.  He’s the shadowy recluse at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.  Quite frankly, I’m kind of sad it’s all fiction.  As a reader, I want badly to see one of his movies.  (Rob Brunner has a great NYTimes article about the problem of loving nonexistent works of literature and cinema here.)

The mystery that shrouds the filmmaker seems impenetrable.  Disgraced journalist Scott McGrath has tried once before to expose Cordova, with disastrous results.  But now the director’s daughter Ashley, the enigmatic piano prodigy, has been found dead, and McGrath has a chance to redeem himself.

Before anything else, let me point out that this book is great fun.  It’s a claustrophobic, huddled-in-bed, late-at-night kind of a read.  You expect to look up from the book and see someone outside your window, smoking a cigarette under a streetlamp.  Watching you.

It does, however, have some issues.  I was surprised at how clunky parts of it were, since I really enjoyed Pessl’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006).  I can’t decide whether this book needed a little more time to marinate, or whether an overly long period of navel-gazing was its problem.  Certainly it could be tighter.  Witches, demons, Indian burial grounds, missing children, sexual deviance, drug abuse, art, music, and criticism: there is a rather sprawling list of topics addressed. 

The writing does have some lovely moments, but they are overshadowed by some fundamental problems.   The tone of the first-person narration seems naïve, almost juvenile, not at all in the style of a hardened newspaperman.  There is also Pessl’s penchant for italics.  This book is full of them.  Without necessity.  There is rarely a page without italics.  The italics don't seem to be a part of the character's voice, so I can only presume that they are part of Pessl's literary style.  It’s annoying.

Furthermore, I found the protagonist triumvirate of aggressively naïve Nora, drug-dealing Hopper, and world-weary Scott McGrath to be trite and irritating.  They all lacked depth and interior conflict.  I kept hoping Nora, in particular, would meet with an accident.  Sadly, she survives. 
Scott McGrath, our intrepid reporter and narrator, is a man who used to be a highly respected investigative journalist.  His past triumphs included exposés of cartels, dictators, and politicians.  But his illustrious career came tumbling down when he trusted the wrong (unverified) source and slandered Stanislas Cordova.  On live television.  Seems like a rather amateur mistake for a hardened journalist, dontcha think?

He is joined in his quest by two unsuccessful foils.  Nora Halliday is a wannabe actress with little to no talent, whose main purpose in the novel seems to be using her mindless worship of Ashley Cordova to push McGrath forward in his investigation.  Hopper begins as a seemingly-random hanger-on of Ashley, but his “big reveal” is neither unexpected nor particularly helpful.  His purpose in the narrative is to provide otherwise-unknowable information.  He’s a walking info-dump with an attitude.  

Our protagonists are not complex characters.  But the book is not about them.  It’s about Cordova and his weirdness.  And that’s when it gets gooooood.  Cordova is absolutely the most successful character in the book—the one character that’s not there.  As a filmmaker, he inspires generations of misfits and thrill-seekers.  His very inaccessibility is his greatest asset, both in the reality of the book, and the reality of the reader. 

It’s hard not to draw parallels between Cordova and troubled or reclusive filmmakers in “the real world.”  Cordova’s obsessively secretive sets, his intimate involvement with the lives of his actors, the blurring of reality and fiction all sound like accusations leveled against many intense 20th-century directors, most notably Stanley Kubrik.  During the book's scene at an underground sex club called Oubliette, it’s nearly impossible not to think of Eyes Wide Shut.  

In an effort to ground these fantastical set pieces in reality, the book is chock-full of “documentary” evidence.  There are police reports, web searches, phone book pages, and newspaper articles.  While the evidence is well-presented, any book that uses this device is bound to suffer in comparison after JJ Abrams’ S.  This book’s use of “evidence” is solid, but it can’t begin to compete with S.  I’m not sure that any book can.

Pessl has also allowed some web content to the book, explaining in an afterword that a reader can continue to explore the world of Night Film.  There is, indeed, an app for that.   I’ve not played with the extra content, but I have to admit, it struck me as a bit cheesy.  A successfully built world should make a reader want to remain within its bounds, certainly, but this attempt to make the book a multi-media experience feels forced.  There is, however, some lovely art inspired by Cordova, including these awesome mock-ups for his faux films
One of my favorites is this one for At Night All Birds are Black:

As the story progresses, any semblance of reality begin to unwind.  There is a great, trippy sequence where McGrath gets stuck in a series of obsessively detailed Cordova film sets.  At this point, he has no idea what is real and what is fiction.  It’s one of the best sequences in the book, and absolutely worthy of reading alone in a darkened room.  By the time he escapes, you as the reader are seriously questioning whether he is a reliable narrator, or whether he has, in fact, lost his mind.

Because by this time, McGrath has developed a sneaking suspicion that he is inside a Cordova narrative (frankly, so have you, Gentle Reader).  There is some lovely metafictionality, as McGrath begins to interpret actual events as if he were the protagonist in a Cordova film.  He asks for help from Cordova scholars, trying to determine where his path in reality will take him, but using clues from the corpus of the filmmaker’s work.  It’s delightfully weird and twisted, a little like a literary take on Scream's rules of horror movies.

So, the characters can be one-dimensional, the writing veers from insightful to trite, and the plot structure is uneven.  House of Leaves it’s not.  But it’s readable and fun.  And if you read it late at night with most of the lights off, it’s enjoyably creepy.  I dare you to get through the book and not want to crash an underground Cordova screening. Happy searching...

Monday, February 10, 2014


I have had bad reading luck lately.  I have not read anything that I hated, Gentle Readers.  I simply have not read anything that I particularly enjoyed.  I have merely passed the time with a book.  I have not been possessed, driven, feverishly reading through the night.  It’s felt a bit like a waste of time.  None of these books will stay with me for good or for ill, methinks.  

I need a book that will take me by the metaphorical shoulders, shake me gently, and insist "love me!"  While that insistence in a man might be a little creepy, I want that from a book.  I need a literary ravishing.   And now I've taken the metaphor too far.  Anyway, on to the books!

 1) The Postmortal, Drew Magary
A cure for aging is discovered and leads to economic and ecological apocalypse:  cool, right?  Nah.  
The premise is intriguing.  People can still be killed through murder, accident, etc, but no one dies of old age.  Terrorism, bigotry, and ecological collapse ensue.  Magary wants this book to be a sharp satire about overcrowding, human selfishness, prejudice, and an eventual realization of the beauty within life's fragility.  I see where he's going.  But...

This book never gets there.  It's fine, it's readable, it's totally forgettable.  Magary is a blogger, and while I like some bloggers-turned-print authors, this one doesn't write enough like a "real" writer to make his ideas arresting.  I talked myself into finishing (skimming) the book and was underwhelmed.  My final grade is a resounding "meh."

2) The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, Emily Croy Barker
 The one started out strong.  Nora is a disillusioned grad student whose conversations and observations are often peppered with literary allusions or quotations.  (Yeah.  I couldn't figure out why I liked her, either.)  Her dissertation is stalled because she's having trouble turning her love for close reading into something to say about "larger problems" like colonialism or queer theory.  (I know, I know!)

She wanders into an alternate world where magic functions and where she is seemingly rescued by the Faitoren.  Naturally, the Faitoren turn out to be fairies who cloud her mind and her judgment and marry her off to a fairy prince by night/dragon by day so as to impregnate her with his pterodactyl baby.  Then she's rescued by a gruff wizard who is older than he appears and softer than he seems.

It could have been a clever look at a modern fairy story.  Nora is a protagonist smart enough to recognize the traditions she encounters and comment on them.  Instead, this book is a much weaker version of Howl's Moving Castle, complete with deceptively old gruff-yet-ultimately-loveable wizard.  Nora is vaguely insulted by the misogynistic traditions of her new world, but when she finally proves herself useful, everyone (including the author, seemingly) is shocked by her acumen.  For all that Croy mentions that Nora fights the patriarchal traditions of the alternate world, there is far too much telling, and very little showing.  There's even less changing. 

Not a great deal of character development, and once the clever literary in-jokes petered out, I was bored by the writing style.  One of my very favorite authors, Kelly Link, wrote a blurb that claims The Guide is “A clever and scrumptious debut fantasy, the kind you happily disappear into for days.”  Kelly LIED to me.  I give The Guide a "meh"-plus.

3) Old Man's War, John Scalzi
I liked it.  I really did.  But I didn't love it.  I know some of you, Gentle Readers, are Scalzi fanatics.  He's fabulous, and his blog is terrificOld Man's War was nominated for a Hugo!  But I didn't love it.  It's a Heinlein homage that reads a little too close to the homage-d for me.  I kept flashing to Starship Troopers.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a space opera.  This book does absolutely rate better than a "meh" or a "meh"-plus, but I can't quite jump up and down and scream "Read it! Read it, you fools!"

Don't get me wrong, if the purported film deal really does happen, Wolfgang Peterson will be directing, and I will absolutely go see it.  Yay, hard scifi movies!

4) The Apocalypse Codex, Charles Stross

Another book that was good, but didn't knock my socks off.  Silly but sharp, slapstick-meets-harrowing Brit humor is great, but Stross just doesn't do it for me.  Apparently I just need to wait until Simon Green has a new one out.  [How do you not love a man who writes the line "Personally, I've always felt I needed trepanation like a hole in the head?"  Oh, Simon Green.]

The Apocalypse Codex is part of the Laundry Files series, about a supernatural British secret service.  In this one, our hero is sent off to investigate an American huckster who runs a mega-church.  Naturally, the church is really set up to funnel energy to otherworldly demons.  I will say that Stross does have his Lovecraft down pat. 

It was amusing, but honestly, even as I sat down to write this review, I had to think for a good minute or two to remember what the book was about.  That's never a good sign.  Unless your brain is being eaten by Cthulhu.  Which is an option in the world of the Laundry Files.   Solid "meh"-plus. 

Then I opened Marisha Pessl's Night Film.  Oh, Readers; oh, my.   I'll be back, but I'm being happily swallowed by a narrative right now.