Back in the early days of the blog, I read the debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and enjoyed it. That was October of 2007. This summer, Pessl finally released her follow up novel, The Night Film. I actually read the advanced reader copy on the beach, back in August, just as the book came out to great fan fare and a cover review in The New York Times Book Review by none other than Joe Hill [a Becky fav].
What is so great about Night Film is that it is an unclassifiable book. That might drive others crazy, but I loved that about it. It is part mystery, part psychological suspense, and part horror movie. Yes I said movie, not book, I will explain below. And, if you are looking for a closed ending, stop reading this review right now because you aren't getting one here. I loved how the entire book was written in an uneasy and unsteady tone which never let up. And, kudos to Pessl. This is a very different book than her debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics (which I also loved). We had to wait 7 years for her next book. But instead of playing it safe, Pessl delivered Night Film which is 600 pages of crazy (in a good way).
That was the general overview, now for some specifics. Night Film is the story of Scott McGrath, a journalist whose entire career was trashed when he falsely accused the [fictional] cult horror film maker, Cordova of evil things. The book opens as Cordova's college age daughter Ashley is found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in NYC and McGrath feels his obsession, his years of research on Cordova, pulling at him to get involved and figure out who killed Ashley. So, McGrath and 2 questionably helpful assistants play detective. But when you are trying to solve the murder of the daughter of a highly secretive man, whose entire life has been spent creating dark, disturbing, movie masterpieces, things do not follow the straight line of a basic mystery novel.
This is all I will tell you about the "plot" but knowing there is a mystery at the center of this twisted, dark, original, and intriguing story tells you nothing about whether or not you would like reading this book.
The appeal of this book is in its construction. This is really a story about McGrath and Cordova, both as separate people and about their relationship with each other. The entire story is told only from McGrath's pov which reinforces the fact that while there are other characters here (including a dead body whose murder needs to be solved) they are not the focus-- McGrath is. McGrath and his long standing issues with Cordova are the crux of the story. This makes the book take on an intense psychological suspense angle which is unnerving and unsteading.
The other fun part about this novel's construction is that Pessl goes all out in creating the Cordova back story. We learn about all of his movies, his fans, his family. Much of her time is spent describing this world, and it is so convincing and detailed that as a reader you start to believe that Cordova actually won an Oscar and has this real oeuvre of movies that are considered sick and twisted, but also genius.
This intricately constructed world also makes McGrath's quest feel as if he is stuck in one of Cordova's movies rather than living his own free will life. This fact is more than hinted at in the novel and makes the reader question everything they are reading. Again, adding a level of unease which was AWESOME.
There are also photos and screen shots of webpages spread throughout this book that add to the creepy, uneasy feeling. It makes the nightmare that McGrath is living throughout the book even more real.
A note on the pacing. At over 600 pages, this is not a fast read, but neither is it methodically paced. I would say it has a slow build that speeds up throughout the book, ending with a whirlwind final 100 pages.
One of the central questions of this novel is whether all the crazy things McGrath is experiencing as he delves deeper and deeper into Cordova's world are supernatural or just the work of a genius filmmaker. As I mentioned above, a definitive answer never comes, but I didn't care as the twists and turns, the ride itself, was so cool. And I should clarify that while the ending is open and left up to your interpretation, there is a big event at the very end that made for a satisfying conclusion. Answers will come, but just not in time for the reader to be privy to them. But again, this is not a book about answers. If you want answers, don't read this book. Reading Night Film is an all consuming experience.
Overall, this is an emotional thrill ride of a book, perfect for people who love to read in an anxious state. The unease is chilling but not gory at all. It is more Hitchcockian. Night Film could have ended up a jumbled mess, but not in Pessl's hands. Rather it is intricately constructed and entirely satisfying.
Three Words That Describe This Book: nightmarish atmosphere, intense, intricately constructed.
Readalikes: In the publisher’s marketing materials Night Film is called: "a page-turning thriller for readers of Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Stieg Larsson.”
I agree that Pessl’s novel is a nice mix of all three of these authors, but it is not necessarily a slam dunk suggestion unless a reader likes all three authors listed (like me). If I had to choose one of the three, King would be the closest.
But really, Night Film is closest to the work of Joe Hill. It is creepy and intricately plotted, with horror and literary fiction elements blended together. Fans of Night Film should try NOS4A2 or Horns.
Help for the Haunted by John Searles is a creepy book with the protagonist on a quest that may or not be complicated by the supernatural, however, Night Film is definitely more complex in style while Help for the Haunted is more traditional in its story telling.
The psychological suspense focus, and haunting tone of The Night Film also reminded me of The Room by Emma Donoghue.
And finally the book that I think is the best match overall is Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Both books are hard to classify but they share the psychological suspense, with a complexly layered plot, a chilling and haunting tone. Both novels also take the reader on a journey into confusion, but it is an enjoyable ride and the ride back out again is worth it.
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