NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

Book Quote:

“Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.

Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his movies in an old box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again.  Or, your boyfriend bragged he’d discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching, refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he’d barely survived.  

Whatever your opinion of Cordova, however obsessed with his work or indifferent—-he’s there to react against.  He’s a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.  He’s underground, looming unseen in the corners of the dark.  He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day. 

He’s a myth, a monster, and a mortal man.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JAN 11, 2014)

This psychological, genre-bursting/ busting literary thriller took me on a high-speed chase into a Byzantine rabbit hole into the quirkiest, eeriest, darkest parts of the soul. Investigative reporter Scott McGrath is on a quest to exhume the facts of a young piano prodigy’s tragic end. Ashley Cordova, 24, daughter of cult-horror film director, Stanislav Cordova, was found dead–allegedly a suicide. The now reclusive director (30 years isolated from known whereabouts) is the reason for McGrath’s ruined reputation five years ago, and Scott is hungry to turn things around, upside down, and inside out to pursue Cordova again and save himself. And to disinter the “truth,” which itself can be an illusory concept in this cat and mouse thriller.

Along the way, McGrath assembles a motley group of two with their own agendas for chasing after the true story of Ashley’s death. It’s almost unbelievable that Scott would let these potential loose cannons join up with him, a virtual loner, but Pessl gives it cred by keeping the reader in an ever-tunneling and tumbling maze of intellectual, emotional, and horror-filled murk. Whatever mental notes you take as the narrative builds, the ever-widening cast and real, random, red herring, or suspect clues keep you from perseverating too long on the questionable partnerships. Each untangled knot corkscrews around to create ropier more entangled ones.

Mind games and magic, or mind games vs magic, is explored in a way that transports you to the most subterranean reaches of the human psyche. Pessl’s penetrating use of symbolism, allegory, literary allusion, and metaphor saturates the story with a weighty unease and anxiety that reflect her incomparable understanding of the human condition–(not to mention a rarefied channeling of hallucinogenic experiences). In Night Film, mind over matter is a daring question with a dangerous reckoning.

Pessl is obviously familiar with Hitchcock’s work, as well as the films of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrik. Additionally, the iconic 40’s noir films infuse Night Film with oblique shadows and moral ambiguity and imbue it with mixed media from the Internet age. Throw in a little Stephen King to the mix, too. However, Pessl’s use of pastiche is brushed and buffed into her own variegated style, with a voice that is strikingly poetic. She winks at and pays homage more than she mimics.

The gritty and shadowy streets, railway tracks, bridges, and warehouses of New York; the dark silhouette of the Adirondacks against a night sky; mansions sitting like a pit bull on a bluff; the mist obscuring the hand or a face or the gnarled limb of a tree–all Pessl’s ethereal images suffuse the story with an almost sepulchral ambiance. There were times I jumped while reading, certain I heard a cup rattling on a shelf, or saw a light flickering behind a curtain. At other times, my heart melted, especially when Scott would successfully enlist his five-year-old daughter to help his investigation. She was uncannily guileless but aware and persuasive.

The overriding theme can be found in the first lines of the book, a quote from Stanislav Cordova that begins the prologue:

“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?”

What happens when we break through our cocoon and walk to the edge and back? Are we blinding ourselves to our true nature, and to the nature of others, when we attempt to hold desperately onto those we love?

“Life was a freight train barreling toward just one stop, our loved ones streaking past our windows in blurs of color and light. There was no holding on to any of it, and no slowing down.”

This is at turns comical, disturbing, terrifying, tragic, tender, and spiritually poetic. The pace is breakneck and pitch-perfect electric, despite its florid and exuberant sentences, and the prose is evocative, aphoristic, savvy. It’s relentless and addictive, no time to catch your breath before you are falling through another black hole.

If you prefer a straight-up horror or crime-solving genre, this may not please you. Pessl breaks the rules and the mold, and the narrative is as much philosophy and metaphysics as it is mystery and mysticism. I was chasing shadows and rainbows in equal measure.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 562 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (August 20, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 11, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2013 Favorites, Horror, Literary, Mystery/Suspense, New York City, Reading Guide, Thriller/Spy/Caper

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