I finished reading Marisha Pessl’s Night Film about an hour ago and I’m still a bit freaked out by the experience. I had no idea what I was getting into when I read the opening chapters. I thought I was getting a mystery. What I got instead was a mystery wrapped around a horror story inside of a philosophical and psychological exploration of the boundaries the human psyche.
Scott McGrath, when we meet him, is a disgraced journalist. Until he tangled with the notorious horror film director Stanislas Cordova, McGrath had a reputation for ruthless and daring investigations into drug cartels and political scandals. Now, he’s divorced and can’t get a job with any respectable publication. We meet him as he’s jogging in Manhattan. As he runs, he sees a girl in a red coat who constantly disappears and reappears. McGrath is not even sure she’s real. A day or so later, McGrath gets a call from his lawyer who tells him that Ashley Cordova, the daughter of his nemesis, is dead in apparent suicide. Pessl begins weaving an extraordinary web of characters, motives, lies, possible magic, devil worship, and fear. McGrath has allies, but Pessl keeps them firmly in the no man’s land between objective truth and subjective reality. This is absolutely a book that rewards repeat readings. Though, having read the book once, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure this book out completely.
At the center of Night Film is the shadowy Stanislas Cordova and his equally unfathomable daughter, Ashley. We learn about the two partly through McGrath’s quest and partly through clippings from newspapers and pages from a Tor site called the Blacklands, created for and by fans of Cordova père‘s films. Early in the book, McGrath contacts a film critic who is obsessed with Cordova’s films. Beckman explains how to understand the man through his films and his sketchy biography. Everything starts with the strange home life of the Cordova family. As Beckman explains:
What you tend to find in the personal lives of brilliant men is devastation akin to a nuclear bomb going off. Marriages mangles. Children growing up as deformed prisoners of war–all of them walking around with holes where their hearts should be, wondering where they belong, what side they’re fighting for. Extreme wealth, like the kind Cordova married into, only magnifies the size and scope of the fall out. (Location 705, Kindle edition)
Throughout the book, McGrath is trying to find out if Stanislas Cordova is evil or just a man drawn to the darker side of the mind. That mystery captured him even more than trying to figure out what really happened before Ashley died has. In truth, that happened to me, too.
Night Film is an incredible read on so many levels. First, the characters are startlingly original. I’ve never seen anyone quite like them. They’re believable. The antagonists are chilling and sinister. You get to know the protagonists so well that I was genuinely afraid for them as they dug deeper into the Cordova family. But the beautifully brilliant thing about this book is the way it’s written. I marveled as Pessl kept the characters (and me) guessing about what was really going on. There are two major twists at the end that kept me from saying, “Ah! That’s what happened.” I still don’t know what happened, really. I’ve never encountered a book quite like this. And I adored the way that the mystery and horror came to mirror one of Cordova’s films. There are just to many layers to this novel!
I hope that Pessl publishes again soon. But I’m going to read the next one with the lights on.