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.
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.