Marisha Pessl

Night Film

Night Film Paper CoverI just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I received this novel in paperback for Christmas in 2014, and so I was really keen on getting it read by Christmas 2015. I totally succeeded….  Anyway, I read Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and decided then that I would read whatever she wrote next. Granted, I read that novel in 2011 and it was originally released in 2006.  So, Night Film‘s release in 2013 was a hefty pause for any Pessl fans.

This novel, like her first, is a weighty thing. Nearly 600 pages, it suffers from the flaw of just dang not knowing when to end. In my review of her first work I wrote that she needed a more stringent editor.  I almost want to say the same thing for this novel. However, I think that a lot less could be edited out of this one. Say, only 100 pages or so. That is a bit of an improvement, then.

Also, Pessl’s use of the metaphor is reduced in this novel, thank heavens. In the first novel, everything was like something and then like something again and then every sentence was a metaphor and that was like….. well, you know. So, if it took seven years for Pessl to write and publish this, I think that she definitely improved. That, my fellow readers, is a very key point not to be overlooked or dismissed. I am usually slightly more lenient with a new author’s first novel. However, for their second, I demand improvement. Pessl meets the measuring stick.

I did not expect a good novel. I am not artsy-fartsy (please, no one get their feathers ruffled with that expression) enough to understand and appreciate film theory. No matter the quality of the first novel, I think Pessl demonstrated she is hardly a bonehead ready to join the ranks pumping out pulpy drivel. In other words, she is a smart one. I like smart people. Still, the topic of this novel was not something that I would read if it was not written by Pessl. I am really leery of film-novels. I really make the effort to avoid gory things, depraved things, suicide-stories, etc. And, well, let’s face it, Pessl was in the NY Times Bestseller’s List. Not a bonus for my preferences of vintage, obscure, and classic choices.  Pessl was starting in the red for me with this one, not her fault, but factually true.

Ultimately, this is a novel about investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his investigations into the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of very famous cult-filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova. That is the main thread, but just slightly below that line is the work Pessl does to blur, shake, and disrupt the line between reality/fantasy, real/fiction.  It is this subplot that makes the novel fit the category of noir as opposed to some John Grisham-like thriller.

But those are not the only two threads. There are several other lines running constantly throughout the whole novel. For example:  McGrath and Cordova’s lives have plenty of similarities. Also, there is a heap of film theory and understanding of film work here.  Pessl deserves an “A” for her effort here. She literally created a detailed and vibrant body of work for a fictional filmmaker.

Not only did Pessl create this detailed body of work for a fictional filmmaker, but she remains consistent with it – and, amazingly, builds it into a whole society:  actors and actresses, fans and film critics, etc. Serious “world-building.” This was no easy thing and I can appreciate the effort, though, again, film and I are not really cozy. (I’m about as appreciative of Michael Bay’s work as Alfred Hitchcock’s. I’m a bad person. LOL)

The main thing about Stanislaus Cordova is that he is aloof, mysterious, and his films are completely captivating and disturbing. They are known for having a long-lasting, life-changing effect on his audience.  One of the many characteristics of Cordova’s works is that he manages to constantly upend the viewers by truly twisting reality/fantasy around and seemingly constantly forcing his audiences to seek the “really real.”

Now, some may scoff at Pessl’s use of “background” media. But this is 2013 – and her inclusion of internet items and media makes this a contemporary force.  This is, perhaps, where novels will go futuristically. So, readers who consider these items as “gimmicks,” might want to think again. The novel begins with a series of these faux-news articles and online snippets. These give a nontraditional feel to the novel, as well as providing a lot of background for the reader – without another 250 pages of droll background history. This is an innovative and interesting method.

McGrath is a little aggravating after awhile. Pessl clearly sees this and buffers his narrative presence with two other characters; young folk who “join” his investigation into Ashely’s death.  These characters develop throughout the novel and are not just stagnant place-holders for McGrath to bounce off of. Like I said, Pessl is not a bad writer.

The novel had me up late into the night reading along. The middle chunk is definitely suspenseful and mysterious and creepy. Yes, it is sometimes a little bit scary.  I love that Pessl was able to develop this slow-building terror. She does not heavy-hand scare the reader, which I appreciate. I do not know exactly how she did it, but Pessl definitely steadily increases the suspense until the reader is swept along with McGrath down whatever rabbit trail he heads – with a pounding heart. Who would have thought film theory and a suicide investigation would be this gripping?

Still, there are a couple elements that Pessl does take too far. She probably does overwork them a little more than necessary, to be honest. And some readers, the very critical, will suggest that she went over-the-top with some of the Voodoo/fantasy elements. I am undecided; an argument could be made either way on this point. But be advised:  the settings and suspense do build into quite a dark and depraved possible picture.

This is a good novel. It is one of those, however, that readers will love to pick apart and sink their claws into. Well, and Pessl knows that they will. But for the majority of things published, this is a very developed novel with a lot going on in it. And, further, separately, each ingredient of the novel (setting, pacing, characters, etc.) can be praised. Maybe the overall is not five-stars, but at its base this is a solid bestselling novel. I would recommend it to people who enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and also Pessl’s first novel.

A hundred pages less and this would be a five star novel, I think. Its not a storyline I love, but the pages kept turning and I must praise the effort. I guess I just hope her next novel is sooner than another seven years………

4 stars

Special Topics In Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics cover

I finally got around to reading “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl.  It was published in 2006 and is the author’s first published novel.  According to Wikipedia (not the most truthful of all sources), Pessl had several attempts that failed at getting published.

The book is often compared to “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, which I have also read.  I don’t know that that is a fair comparison, although while reading this book, the comparison did cross my mind. Ultimately, the books are quite different, and I think that any association is just because our minds work well with analogy and similarity.

Personally, I think this book draws from an autobiographical standpoint.  Pessl was born in Michigan and went to a private, co-ed school in Asheville, NC. This is very much like the main character of the book, Blue van Meer.  The dust jacket describes Blue in this fashion:

“….a brainy, deadpan, and preternaturally erudite girl who, after traveling from one remote academic outpost to another with her professor father, has a head crammed full of literary, philosophical, and scientific knowledge.  (She is also a film buff and can recite pi out to sixty-five decimal places).  When she is sixteen, due to certain nuclear events, her previously dull life is forever transformed.”

The book is told from the point of view of Blue.  And Blue will consistently and thoroughly inundate the reader with a variety of “references.”  Some people might find this tedious.  Unless you’re a reader of such an appetite like Blue, then you will probably find that her endless quoting of books she’s read is overbearing.  However, I didn’t mind at all, and frankly, enjoyed most of those parts as much as or more than the storyline itself.  What the dust jacket said about Blue is accurate, especially the point about Blue being “deadpan.”  She is often shy and socially-inept which appears throughout the book as a deadpan innocence.

Overall, its a good book, and that is looking at it from a distance.  As you get closer to the book, its not quite as good as one thinks that it is.  Its certainly not a bad book, but it just isn’t on par with great books.  One of my main thoughts about this book is that Pessl was never really certain where the story was going – as if she just sat down to write, using her life as a vague guide, and just wrote whatever hoping the storyline would fall in step.  It kind of does and it doesn’t all at once.  The book seems like a real investigation of the relationship between Blue and her father and their nomadic lifestyle across the USA.  A reader might expect that the book would be focusing on Blue’s struggles to get accepted at Harvard University.  However, somewhere in the second half of the book, the book veers off this course and there are a couple of dead bodies and suddenly its a murder mystery – but without the suspense and thrill.  A whole pack of characters (Blue’s peers at school) are heavily developed, reworked, reworked again, and then discarded as meaningless and with distaste.  And in the end, the reader feels a bit unsatisfied because there are several items left unsaid, which, frankly, someone ought to just say, but we are left to surmise on our own. In this type of book, I do not think leaving things unsaid or incomplete works.

One of the pitfalls that Pessl falls in from time to time is the over-metaphoring of things.  Sometimes, when trying to write as a genius, erudite Blue, Pessl describes something or someone or some event with a bit too much metaphor.  Its easy to fall into this – thinking that everything has to be over-metaphored.  Overall, though, Pessl keeps most of it witty and/or interesting. But sometimes it does get tedious. Its a tough balance to strike, and I can see how Pessl overdid it. What I cannot see, is why the editors did not point some of this out.

There are some hysterical lines in the book, though.  At several of them, I penciled in “LOL” so that whomever reads this copy next will know that I agree that these lines are amusing. Sometimes such lines are both witty and also demonstrate that Pessl does have a knack for describing the awkward and thoroughly human moments that people experience.  For example, driving to a house, Blue shares:

“At the end of this nauseating parade of woods and pastures and nameless dirt roads… I’d find not a house, but a black door barred by a velvet rope, a man with a clipboard who’d look me over and, when ascertaining I didn’t know Frank or Errol or Sammy personally (nor any other titan of entertainment), would declare me unfit to enter, by inference, to continue living.”

3 stars