Thursday, July 4, 2013
NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl is an out-and-out thriller. It starts with the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of infamous horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Scott McGrath, a forty-three-year-old investigative reporter, is convinced that her father had something to do with Ashley’s death, and proceeds to delve into the life of the reclusive filmmaker. Early on he meets two young people—Hopper and Nora—who, despite his initial reluctance, insist on helping him with the investigation. Together they edge closer and closer to the truth of what actually happened, gradually uncovering the secrets of the Cordova family.
The book’s structure is simple: McGrath follows one lead after another, each leading to the next, and after every encounter he learns incrementally more about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ashley’s death. The plot is pretty straight-forward. It becomes clear early on that every detail McGrath uncovers will be important, every person he talks to will contribute another piece of the Cordova puzzle. There are no false leads, no dead ends. The unrelenting connectedness of everything can get a little wearying sometimes, especially considering that a lot of these connections aren’t uncovered in an overly clever way; oftentimes the people McGrath meets just tell him about some illuminating incident or chunk of biographical information about Cordova and the narrative grinds to a halt as McGrath (and, by extension, the reader) just sits there listening to them. When some of the people McGrath encounters go on pages-long monologues that amount to little more than expositional info-dumps, you begin to realize why this is a 600-page book (and question why it needs to be, a little).
McGrath is a mostly amiable guide through the novel’s proceedings. He is very well-suited to solve the story’s mysteries—the perfect person, actually. He is resourceful, tenacious, well-connected, and willing to put himself in danger. He also has a rogue-ish streak, showing no compunction about “breaking the rules” when he needs something. When he weasels his way into an acquaintance’s apartment and checks the guy’s browser history or when he has one of his police contacts illegally procure him an autopsy report, there is an understanding that it’s for the greater good. In this way, McGrath strikes me as your standard 21st-century hero: someone who is principled, but who also follows his own moral compass with little regard for propriety or the “rules” set forth by various institutions, whether it be the government or slightly less shady organizations (ha). McGrath gives us no reason to doubt his beneficent intentions (he just wants to get to the bottom of all this), so we go along with his exploits without passing judgment on him.
Which is kind of the problem with his character. In fact, it’s a problem with almost all the characters in the book. There is a certain blandness to everyone. As soon as a character arrives on the scene, you’ve immediately apprehended him or her. They are a) so obviously filling a certain role to keep the story moving forward and b) so completely and utterly themselves, with almost nothing new to discover about them later on. These one-dimensional characters can be exhaustively summed up in pithy little descriptions (eg. “The old, shrill former actress”, “the spacey mystic”, etc). This actually gets Pessl in occasional trouble when some of her characters come close to being racial stereotypes (“The uptight Asian family”, “the loquacious Jamaican cabbie”).
The main character, the guy narrating the story and whom we spend the most time with, is unfortunately no exception. McGrath’s overriding character trait is established early: He’s a good person. Even things that could paint him in a less favorable light seem to exist mainly to prove that he’s ultimately good (eg. he’s divorced with a young daughter whom he maybe doesn’t spend a lot of time with but he’s really tortured about it because he really loves her, so, you know, his intentions are in the right place). There is no ambiguity to the character, and the way the book is written obviates any possible alternative interpretation; he’s one of the good guys, the book is telling us, just accept it. And accept it we must because not only will it inform all his actions, but it seems to be the answer to very basic plot questions that remain nebulous otherwise. Like: why is he so interested in uncovering the secrets about Ashley’s death? He does have some antagonistic history with the Cordova clan, but as an impetus for his investigation it is ultimately unconvincing. The basic, real reason is that there was something sketchy about the death and he’s going to uncover the truth because that is the right thing to do.
Again, he’s not like Mr. Rogers nice or anything. He does have his share of flaws. (His biggest foible, for me, is that he has incessant quips and one-liners about everything— sometimes spoken, sometimes only in his head—though mercifully he eases up on them a little as the stakes get higher in the second half of the book.) But those flaws don’t deepen the character at all, since we know (we just know) that he’s one of the good guys. The same can be said of his sidekicks, Hopper and Nora. They both initially seem to have ulterior motives for helping out with the investigation, but it is eventually revealed that they, like McGrath, are driven out of a sense of goodness. (Pessl gets a lot of mileage out of Hopper clearly keeping a secret from the other two, although when the secret is finally divulged it is dispiritingly underwhelming.) They are the do-gooders, the three of them. That’s about as deep as they’ll get as characters.
Actually, the novel does have one interesting character: the filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. He provides the driving force of the narrative, the core around which all the other characters revolve (it sometimes feels as if McGrath and crew are stalking an elusive quarry). He's the kind of director who makes cerebral films designed to investigate or question our own preconceptions about fate, knowledge, good & evil, right & wrong. Added to this, he's a total recluse, so of course he's widely respected by the general public as well as by the cult that has sprung up in his name, full of people who endlessly dissect his films and form insular online communities. (He's not only interesting but entirely believable.) A big part of why he's interesting is that he starts out as an enigma and McGrath slowly learns more about him as the story progresses. All the rumors and misinformation about Cordova must be sifted through, along with the hyperbolic adulation, and gradually the character isn't so much described as merely adumbrated. The mystery is a big part of his appeal. He is the book's MacGuffin, and Pessl wisely keeps him "off-screen" for as long as she can (and then some). The problem she runs up against is that, at a certain point, a total explication of Cordova would be woefully inadequate—he's been built up too much. Pessl manages to come up with a solution to this, though the results are not entirely satisfying.
But truthfully none of that character stuff matters much, because having fully developed 3D characters isn't what NIGHT FILM is about. This book is about thrills and chills and just having a good time. It's got a made-for-the-big-screen premise and the story is meant to move along as frictionlessly as a night at the movies with a dozen friends. And for the most part, it succeeds. Pessl has found a writing style that keeps you turning pages; the prose is full of "Suddenly"s and momentum-sustaining absolute constructions. The set pieces, like the one where McGrath crashes a bizarre late-night party for the rich and louche, are taut and engaging. Aside from the aforementioned draggy monologues, the whole thing is a pretty brisk affair and I can't imagine having reservations about passing it along to pretty much any reader. (Which makes Random House's description of NIGHT FILM as a "literary thriller" a little confusing. Why limit the audience by throwing around that nasty L-word?) Expect lots of “Gone Girl”-type buzz from this one come August.