Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.

23 thoughts on “Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

  1. I enjoyed your review. Others bloggers have called it one of their books of the year, while yet another could barely finish it. I enjoyed it a lot & was glad I read it, but it was definitely horror-lite. Somehow I thought it would be creepier! The great revelation was a bit of a let-down. I did enjoy the addition of the articles & web material, and like you, found the movie set section of the book quite gripping.

    • It’s definitely a book that divides its readers! Though in fact it sounds like we both responded to it in very similar ways. I found the beginning creepy, but by about halfway through it wasn’t scary at all. I had no trouble switching the lights off to go to sleep!

      Denise – you’re quite right – I’d love to read more bloggers’ reviews of this, as I imagine they may be extremely interesting. If you had the kind of book group who would read 600 pages of anything, it would be a fun one to try out on them.

  2. I rather love the idea of an adult version of Scooby-Doo (much as I hate the cartoon show). I really disliked her first book, Special topics in calamity physics, and probably shan’t rush to read this, long as it is.

  3. I gave up on this one quite early, because it seemed to be getting too dark too quickly, but that you made it through and you were glad you read it makes me think I should go back. There were bit I liked …

    • In fact, given how long it takes to read 600 pages, I’d probably suggest you pick up something you are more sure you’ll love. It does begin dark, though I found it didn’t maintain that level of spookiness, but yes, the beginning is the most unnerving part. Generally I don’t like anything that scares me. I would never have got through it if it had been seriously creepy!🙂

  4. Well now I think I’ll read this after all… I both liked and was frustrated and irritated by her first novel, which thought itself cleverer than it was and yet had something about it, and I read a lot of negative reviews of this one. It sounds ambitious and a bit mad but not nightmare-inducing. I’ll look out for it.

    • Ooh yes, when you say ‘thought itself cleverer than it was and yet had something about it’ that very much puts a finger on the way I experienced this novel, too. How intriguing that that should be the most lingering impression of her book. It isn’t really nightmare-inducing though. It begins a bit unnerving, but no one could possibly take Scott McGrath seriously!🙂 I read a lot of negative reviews, too, and found them a bit unfair. I thought there was a definite backlash against a clever, pretty young woman whose first novel had been praised perhaps excessively. Plus she is in typical male territory here, of the kind that tends to be closely guarded. So that rather put me on her side.

  5. While the ethical jury in your mind is deliberating, I’ll just mention that it’s totally unfair to prosecute yourself for thought crime. What makes you feel better makes you feel better.

    WHAT was WITH the italics? I was so sure that it was some sort of code that an enterprising reader would crack, and we would all feel normal again. Pessl didn’t do the italics in her other book! Why didn’t for heaven’s sake her editor rein her in?

    • Jenny, I love you for so many reasons, and right now I love you for throwing thought crime out the window. Whatever you say is right, I know. And OH those italics! They were a sort of madness-cum-contagious-typescript-rash. It was a bit much when everyone interviewed in the investigation spoke that way. I did also wonder whether her editor had gone on holiday at a crucial part of the process.

  6. Like you I have a problem with chunky books and your review, while fair and appealing to some extent, does not make me want to go through this. Not when there is Goldfinch and a few other long books I’d rather read.

    • Well I perfectly understand that. I cannot in all honesty say this is a wonderful book and you should rush to read it. I can think on ones you’ll like better!

  7. I can’t imagine wanting to read this, as I’ve never liked horror. At the moment I am completely sated with psychological thrillers and am reading a little known but completely delightful adult novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. What a breeze it is. But glad it hit the spot for you, though hardly what one expect you to like.

    • It’s really not very horror-ish at all – or I couldn’t have got through it! And it’s a mixed book – some good, some bad. I was glad I’d read it by the end, but I certainly had to do a lot of wading in the third quarter. Heh, I can perfectly understand the urge fo Frances Hodgson Burnett. Variety is one of the most important rules of my reading!

  8. So is it better to read ambitious books that don’t quite work, or mediocre books that manage to pull themselves together? I tend to lean toward the ambitious I think, so perhaps I might give this one a go sometime. I own her first book and haven’t read it yet, maybe I should read that one.

    • I’d be really interested to know what you thought of the first novel. I remember it coming out, and I know I considered buying it, but something else (or several somethings) must have caught my eye and intervened. Like you, I lean towards the ambitious, because I do enjoy authors being innovative, even if it doesn’t always come off or might not be my usual cup of tea. I like to see creativity in action! By its nature, I don’t think ambition ever results in a perfect book – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an interesting one.🙂

  9. I’ve gotten interested in this author and your review of this one interests me further, but I think I’ll start with Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
    Jenny is so right about thought crime. Although some of my friends say that if you tell or write about what you’re thinking, then it becomes a force in the world. (These are the friends who twit me about not having a private life, like I tell everything that happens on my blog, which I actually don’t.)

    • I am pretty sure it was your review of this that prompted me to try it. (Is that possible? I thought it was you, but might have misremembered!) I rather love the idea of making thought a force in the world by articulating it. If you used the power for good….? Though I am sure that there are plenty of novels designed with the sole intention of reminding us that what’s out of our mouths is then out of our control. Still… I rather like it!

      • It wasn’t me…and I’m glad to know other people don’t always keep meticulous track of who put them onto what.
        It’s not unusual to think of making thought a force in the world by articulating it when we talk about academic writing. Confessional writing, though–that’s where it get interesting. Does saying it make it so?

  10. it would be tough for any author to sustain the quality at a high level when they’r producing 500 pages or so wouldn’t it? Maybe it was the very oddity of this book with its unusual juxtapositions that kept you motivated.

    • You’re quite right. Though having read The Luminaries earlier this year, which sustained brilliant prose for almost 800, I am probably being unfair! These amazing books come along and they skew your judgement. I did rather like the juxtapositions, though. And I do appreciate books that try unusual things, even if they are flawed for doing so. Rather that than blind adherance to formula.

  11. I’m really surprised that you enjoyed this one. I don’t really know why, but even seeing that you’d decided to pick it up shocked me! I started reading this and found the writing so bad that I abandoned it, but then I started listening to the audio version and all those problems were gone and I really enjoyed it – although it did drag a bit in the middle too. Glad you enjoyed it!

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