Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: "Night Film" by Marisha Pessl

In 2006, Marisha Pessl's fantastic debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was released, and it hooked me completely. For years I eagerly anticipated her follow-up novel, and finally, seven years later, Night Film was released, to great fanfare in the literary world.

Was it worth the wait? Hell, yes. I finished the book last night and I still cannot get it out of my mind.

Stanislas Cordova is a famous avant-garde movie director. Known for exposing the horror that lies beneath everyday situations, for manipulating emotions and inflicting psychological terror on his audiences, his films are beloved, reviled, and studied by film scholars worldwide. When the plot of one of Cordova's films is mirrored by an actual murderer, the public tide starts to turn against him, so his films become underground events, "night films," only shown in secret locations known to rabid fans.

Cordova's genius is celebrated yet the director, a notorious control freak and recluse, holes himself up in a heavily protected compound in upstate New York, where all of his films are made. Those actors and technicians that have worked with him refuse to talk about their experiences, or have disappeared for new lives in places unknown. There are rumors of the occult, of unspeakable acts being committed against children on Cordova's compound. Is he a twisted mastermind or a malevolent villain?

Celebrated investigative journalist Scott McGrath once tangled with Cordova, calling him out on a late night talk show. It destroyed McGrath's career, left him with much less money, and ended his marriage and many professional relationships. So when Cordova's daughter, Ashley, a gifted musician who apparently had more than her own share of demons, is found dead after an alleged suicide attempt, the logical thing for McGrath to do is to let it go, right?

But McGrath believes there is a story behind Ashley's death, and her troubled life, and he is determined to uncover it, in the hopes that the trail may lead him back to Cordova himself. Along with Hopper and Nora, two young people with their own connections to Ashley, McGrath begins digging deeper and deeper into what happened to Ashley. What they discover is that there are no easy answers to these questions, and everything they find out moves them closer to and further away from the truth, while placing their lives in danger. And the quest for answers takes McGrath into the horrors of his own mind.

This is an ambitious book, more than 600 pages in length, with fake newspaper and magazine articles, webpages, and photos sprinkled throughout to bolster the story. It is truly a thrill ride that leaves you breathless; I found myself wanting to see some of Cordova's movies after hearing them and his craft described so reverently. And while the book spent more time delving into the paranormal than I would have liked, the way that thread was tied up made the time worthwhile. You find yourself wondering just exactly what happened to those who worked with Cordova, or whether McGrath was telling the story the way he heard it, manipulating the facts to fit his own purposes.

Pessl did a fantastic job unraveling the plot piece by piece, and while I found myself needing to reread the last 50 or so pages to be sure I understood how things concluded, I felt tremendously satisfied although slightly out of breath, as if I had raced to the story's end. This isn't a book for everyone but it is so well-written, so well-told, that I hope it finds an audience willing to be teased, willing to think, and willing to get utterly hooked. Wow.

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