Saturday, September 21, 2013

Night Film

              Okay, so the rundown is as follows. Night Film is an amazing book, one with more dark twists and turns and odd imagery than the staircase in House of Leaves. I heartily recommend buying it, it being a good "art mystery" with some fantastic elements and a plot that will stay with you long after the book closes. The plotline follows investigative journalist Scott McGrath as he tries to unravel the mysterious suicide of a reclusive film director's daughter with the help of two strangers who find themselves connected to the mystery and indeed the victim. The pros are that it's well-plotted, the dialogue sounds natural, and the world is fleshed out to the degree that you want to know more about Cordova's work.

               The bad bits are that the world of Cordova distracts from the plot in places, that the book itself isn't interested as much in the death that incites the plot events, and the whole mess ends with a "thud" rather than a decisive close. A fifty-page thud that offers some questions about the nature of obsession, but seems to be disinterested with answering any of the numerous questions it poses. 

               But in total, I completely recommend this book, I'm looking forward to what Marisha Pessl may do next, and I definitely enjoyed reading it.

More, as always, below. 

"Just when you think you've hit rock bottom, you realize you're standing on another trap door."
- Scott McGrath

"Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect."
- Stanislas Cordova
                 I started this blog with a book about the dark. That book, Private Midnight, was about a man journeying to some very dark places and the transformative effect it had on him*. I've always loved books like that, books about investigating those dark corners where things start to bend, get more surreal, get weird. Hell, I've always loved that things like that when they happen in real life. It's why I've made a habit of tracking down the obscure, the weird, the things that wind up out of place. Films that couldn't get distribution. Bizarre books people haven't read, let alone taken a look at. Haunted music and paintings. And so, when Marisha Pessl's Night Film came across my desk, I just had to read it. There was no question in my mind, I knew from the moment I saw the cover what kind of book it was and that we would be real good friends.

                  And as it turns out, I was more right than I thought. Night Film is a dark, twisted, theatrical book about how obsession is an engine that drives us to keep moving, sometimes over cliffs and to our almost certain doom. Pessl creates a world that pulls the reader in and unfurls, like a spiral staircase leading downward. And it is brilliant. Almost. Let me explain...

           Night Film begins with the apparent suicide of one Ashley Cordova, daughter of famed reclusive psychological horror director Stanislas Cordova. This piques the interest of a former journalist named Scott McGrath, who once tried to expose Cordova as a deviant and failed in the attempt after his main source suddenly vanished without a trace, leaving him grasping at straws. McGrath feels the threads of a story in the mysterious death, and he calls in a few favors in the hopes that he can figure out why Ashley suddenly came out of hiding and decided to kill herself. He also recalls the incident a few months before where Ashley appeared to either be following him or leading him to something, something he never managed to discern. So one cold night, McGrath goes to the dilapidated building where Ashley died, hoping to find some clue. Here, he briefly meets a vagrant named Hopper who flees the scene of the death. Hopper and McGrath grudgingly join forces and McGrath begins to investigate the strange death, in the hopes of somehow vindicating himself about Cordova. Upon discovering her at a coat-check, McGrath also grudgingly accommodates a young actress named Nora, who adds her questionable skills to the investigation as well.

And then things get weird.

            Cordova's a recluse for a reason, a dark genius whose work eventually caused copycat crimes and protests. His films eventually stopped getting distribution entirely, shown literally underground among fans and those able to decode the enigmatic releases. And his daughter, a piano genius who was raised almost entirely at the secluded Adirondack estate where Cordova eventually walled himself off, is no different. As McGrath and his two assistants investigate the circumstances leading up to Ashley's death, they quickly become entangled in a world of black magic, secret men's clubs, some very dark and disturbing films. And by the end of it, McGrath will be changed by his associations and indeed by his obsession with Cordova's work. But this obsession may also be the thing that ends him, that wraps around his heart and chokes him. It's said that people are transformed by Cordova's work. And McGrath will find out before his journey just how transformed they mean. 

               I suppose the first thing I should commend is the mixed-media approach to the book. Pessl "illustrates" her book with mock web pages, news releases, photographs, and other such things in an attempt to flesh out the book. It actually works pretty well, allowing a glimpse into the world of Night Film and making the world more "real". It also gives a glimpse of some of the characters-- the reader gets to know a little more about Ashley and what she's like through the interviews (Though let's face it, all interviews are manufactured. All pieces on people are. Y'know, except when they're with fictional people who are dead), the world of Cordova and his films are well-defined, and the occasional glimpses of characters who are actually in the narrative provides a little more visual information about them. I admit I was somewhat taken with "The Blackboards", the DeepNet website where Cordova's fans discuss his work, enough to fire up my TOR browser and navigate to where the site was supposed to be...only to be dismayed when the site didn't actually exist**. I like "document" ideas, and so I admit I'm heavily biased, but Night Film pulls it off well. 

                  I also like the way Pessl goes about characterization. While a lesser author would try to spell everything out, Pessl does it in bursts. We know fairly early on that McGrath is divorced and that he has a daughter, but the author tries to show instead of telling, letting the objects in McGrath's office and apartment tell part of the story while McGrath fills in the blanks. Also, by having the story narrated by McGrath, Pessl allows the reader to follow his character through his transformation from down-and-out journalist chasing a story, to dogged investigator, to a battered and obsessed man who just wants to find closure now that everything in his life really is gone. Through McGrath's eyes, we even see the other characters a certain way...first as obstructions of some kind, impeding his progress, then as assistants, a family, and finally distant friends. It's a nice way of showing how the character changes without big statements and big deeds, just a changing point of view. It's also nice to see a character who is morally questionable. McGrath definitely isn't in the right, and over the course of his investigation does a lot of questionable things. But by identifying with him, it allows the reader a little more insight, a little more justification for what he does.

                   And finally, the plotline is actually open for interpretation in a way that doesn't suck. Most plots that go for the "but could it possibly be this?" question usually pull you all the way in one direction and then try to convince you to go another way at the last second. Pessl's narrative sets up a very real set of events, has its characters descend into what could be a story full of black magic rituals and an attempt to swap souls over a Devil's Bridge, and then offer a second equally-valid explanation for what could have happened that also holds up to the scrutiny. And at the end, that makes the ambiguous ending a little better. Is Cordova a black magic figure whose films only hint at what's really going on, or is he simply a disturbed director that's given too much of a reputation, a man surrounded by urban legends and crazed fans?

                      Which brings up an interesting point, actually. Why are all of Cordova's fans crazed obsessives? The single rational person in all of Cordova's work, the only one who hasn't been driven completely mad, is McGrath's sometimes friend sometimes enemy, a film professor with a love of horror movies. While it sets up the creepy mystery surrounding Cordova, it also makes one wonder why more people haven't gotten on this. In an age where the FBI investigates both the Juggalos and the Society for Creative Anachronisms, it seems out of place that the obsessive fans of Cordova's work have suffered no raids or infiltration or anything like that. It's a major oversight in today's surveillance-based culture, and while I understand it has no place in the story, it isn't even attempted to be handwaved. 

                       The book also has difficulties with its focus. The inciting incident to all of this, Ashley, is little more than a cypher placed next to a much larger mystery. And maybe it's part of the point that McGrath is more obsessed with bringing down Cordova and unraveling that mystery, but Cordova's actually the real mystery at the heart of the book here. He's the very clear center to which everything else revolves, and for the point to be that seeking closure in the Ashley matter is more important than pursuing the obsession with Cordova, this would have to be a different book. Ashley isn't the mystery here. 

                            Also, I think this book would have worked better several different ways...the exploration of Cordova and his work as a sort of "found/document" novel would have been brilliant. The mystery story is fairly brilliant in and of itself, but I wanted to know more about Cordova and his world than anything else. It's a little distracting. Okay, it's a lot distracting. And while it serves to drive me deeper into the world and into McGrath's obsession with it, in the end, I want that book. 

                           And finally, the ending. I didn't like it. It fit, but the book sort of just stopped on a smash-to-black kind of situation. In fact, the last fifty pages sort of slowed down and sped up at a weird pace before finally reaching an ending where McGrath and the reader are left hanging, with only the smallest clues implying things. It was as if Pessl wanted to tie up every loose end but also wanted to leave enough for interpretation and expansion. It sort of wanders through both having one's cake and eating it, too, and this indecisiveness isn't good for the reader. 

                            But in the end, I have to conclude that Night Film is an amazing book. It's dark, disturbing, and I couldn't put it down for three days straight, the twists continuing to keep me guessing and wondering about things long after I had to return it, leaving me wondering exactly how much McGrath was played by the director, and how much of his experiences were organic and spontaneous. The plotline unfurls like some gigantic night-blooming fern, and it's an engrossing read. While it may be more about the journey than the destination, I heartily recommend buying this and reading it immediately. Multiple times if necessary. It's that good. 

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
Otherland: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams 
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

*Debating returning to it for this year's special. We'll see. 
** Ms. Pessl, I know you'll never read this in a billion years, but next time? BUDGET IN A FARGING DEEPNET SITE. Don't dangle this in front of people like me and expect that we won't ever try to look them up. 

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