By David L. Ulin
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
3:00 PM EDT, August 15, 2013
Partway through Marisha Pessl's second novel, "Night Film," I began to feel as if I had been taken hostage by the book. This, I should hasten to add, is not its intent. The saga of a legendary film director, Stanislas Cordova, and the suicide of his 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, "Night Film" is willfully portentous, claustrophobic even, a novel that means to explore hidden meanings, in which each turn seems to unveil another layer until illusion and reality begin to merge. It is also, at 600-plus pages, at least a third too long, an overwrought narrative that hints at much but delivers little and, for all its feints and twists, remains surprisingly unsuspenseful in the end.
Pessl is the much-lauded author of "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," which the New York Times Book Review selected as one of the 10 best books of 2006. This follow-up has been seven years in the making, and it has the feel of a novel that may have incubated a bit too long.
Narrated by Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter whose career was ruined after a previous (failed) inquiry into Cordova, it follows some of the conventions of a detective novel, although the mystery is never fully clear. Was Ashley driven to suicide? Did the madness in her father's films come to be visited on her?
"Freak the ferocious out," McGrath explains, referring to "Cordova's supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, and society at large."
There's a point to be made here about the nature of idolatry, about the way we let certain artists get inside us, as if they were speaking directly to some hidden part of ourselves. That's particularly tempting when it comes to a character such as Cordova, whose films — psychological thrillers — are so disturbing that he's been dropped by the studios.
A recluse, he apparently lives on an estate in upstate New York called the Peak, barricaded from the outside world by an expansive military-style wall. After granting a brief and enigmatic interview to Rolling Stone in 1977, he has never spoken (or been seen) in public again.
His daughter is no less elusive: A piano prodigy, she made a single album at 14, under the name Ash DeRouin. In case we miss the significance, one of Pessl's characters spells it out for us: "Ash DeRouin. The ashes from ruins." Portentous, indeed.
This is a key problem with "Night Film" — that it is driven less by the concerns of its characters than by a sense of authorial schematics, as if we were involved in an elaborate shadow play. Pessl encourages such a reading by including an array of documents: notes, Web pages, newspaper clippings, photographs, pages torn from phone books.
The idea is to seed the story with artifacts from the real world and, in so doing, make it feel more rooted. The effect, though, is precisely the opposite, to enhance the novel's artificiality. It's as if we were being guided from one plot point to another, as if this were less a work of fiction than a treasure map. For all her emphasis on, well, emphasis (among other things, "Night Film" may set a new record for italics), Pessl can't disguise a gaping emptiness at the center of the book.
In part, that has to do with McGrath, who is among the most unlikely investigative reporters I've ever come across — disgraced, yes, and with a habit of drinking more than is good for him but somehow able to maintain a West Village duplex and get the most unwilling sources to open up. As a narrator, he's nothing if not archetypal, broken down but not really, with a divorce and a young daughter he can't help placing in harm's way.
Pessl's point is obvious: that there's a parallel between McGrath and Cordova, both of whom have put their daughters at risk through their obsession with certain mysteries. And yet this can't help but backfire because we figure it out at least 100 pages before McGrath does, leaving us to wonder about his skills.
Even more, there's his decision to share the investigation with two younger characters who know more about Ashley than he lets on. Setting aside for a moment the unbelievability of such a setup — why would a seasoned reporter bring a couple of amateurs into an investigation? — the connections Pessl means to showcase come off as gratuitous, a matter of narrative mechanics rather a bond between the characters themselves.
Ultimately, however, the most troublesome aspect of "Night Film" is its benighted attitude toward art. Throughout the novel, in either McGrath's voice or those of the people he interviews, Pessl offers a series of riffs on the inviolability of the artist and the belief that, in the act of creation, every indiscretion or cruelty may be redeemed.
"You'll find that great artists don't love, live … or even die like ordinary people. Because they always have their art," an actress named Marlowe Hughes, once married to Cordova, explains. "Whatever human tragedy befalls them, they're never too gutted, because they need only to pour that tragedy into their vat, stir in the other lurid ingredients, blast it over a fire."
The implication is that Cordova, by virtue of his genius, is immune from basic human expectation, from decency, from empathy. He's a master manipulator, setting traps for those who can't withstand his vision, and yet this sort of gamesmanship — is it real, what happens in this novel, or has McGrath slipped through a wormhole in which the universe of Cordova's movies begins to assert itself in real life? — undermines the urgency of the book.
Art, after all, is not about the artist; it becomes more essential the more it reaches out. This is a conclusion "Night Film" never reaches, offering contrivance, image, rather than the pulse of life.
[For the Record, 1:26 p.m. PDT, Aug. 15: A headline in a previous version of this post stated that the title of Marisha Pessl's second novel is "Night Movies." It is “Night Film.”]
Random House: 602 pp., $28
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