The idea propelling Night Film forward for six hundred odd pages seems to be something to do with the question of whether terror – the absolutely grotesque: that which is morally most base and repulsive – and art are on some level knotted together in an indissoluble symbiotic relationship. An attempt is made over the course of the novel to refract this notion through the cultural side-effects of film: the cult of celebrity (more precisely, the fashionable fascination with celebrity in crisis), the enormous hurricane-like vacuum generated through the withdrawal of art from public view, the cult-like following waiting on – and perhaps even pre-empting – the faintest whisper from ‘the hidden king’ and the artist as tortured recluse who sacrifices his family on the altar of his art. In a nutshell, the author sets out to contrast fame – detached from what might have been called charisma or talent – as commodity with ‘true’ art understood as something like anti-commodity: that which shows itself only by remaining hidden in the darker realms of experience which are available only to those prepared to embrace “mortal fear.” This examination takes place under the guise of a “literary thriller,” another hybrid that roams the darker realms: first-hand sightings are, as we know, are extremely rare – more on this later.
Night Film tells the tale of investigative reporter Scott McGrath who, while collecting background information on famously reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, receives an anonymous phone call hinting that Cordova may be guilty of child abuse. McGrath later repeats the rumor in a TV interview and almost loses everything in the resulting libel case. Years later when Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead as a result of an apparent suicide, McGrath sees an opportunity to re-open his investigation. Suspecting she may have been murdered, McGrath is determined to uncover the truth behind Ashley’s suicide while at the same time restoring his reputation. He is joined in his investigation by Nora, a homeless teenager who saw Ashley on the night of her death, and Hopper, another teenager and former acquaintance of Ashley’s.
For the majority of the book the plot and protagonists – rather than combining to form the engine and action that drives the prose – seem to swap places with the what traditionally might be understood in thrillers as background details or stage furniture, props upon which to hang the action. This reversal thrusts onto the subject matter (the relationship between art, terror and the posited enlightenment brought on by experiencing the latter) of Cordova’s films the task of assuming the role of a type of crypto-protagonist in the action of the novel. Cordova’s artistic endeavors are animated by a desire to run headlong into the embrace of the irrational, and this in turn is to be understood as an antidote to the listlessness and boredom of life lived in thrall to the promise of consumer fulfillment.
If I have understood the author’s aims correctly then certainly the history of boredom is a theme worthy of attention: there is a sense nowadays that we in the West live in a kind of twilight era: in the wake of the debunking of the great ideologies of the twentieth century things seem to have run their course leaving what might be termed the vacated subject behind. While questioning the former wife/actress of Cordova’s, Hopper wonders at one point:
[w]ho would willingly agree to…signing away their life to one man? Hopper had asked Marlowe this. Yet did he need to? Millions of people walked through their lives numb, dying to feel something, to feel alive.
Similarly, Ashley states at one point “my name is no one” and while we are provided some biographical details she never emerges as a distinct personality in her own right: if there is any thriller-like tension moving the book along it is the occasional hint that Ashley might eventually step forth to speak for herself. At this point structural issues begin to undercut the early promise of the premise: in electing to have McGrath narrate the story in the first-person, the author sets up a conflict between the world of Cordova, which increasingly comes to the fore and eventually dominates the narrative outright in the last third of the book, and that of McGrath and his teenage assistants. As we have noted, the characters of McGrath, Nora and Hopper are really no more than scaffolding: above ground reference points which facilitate the novel’s exploration of Cordova’s subterranean themes – this seems to have been intentional on the author’s part but it results in major stylistic consequences for the manner in which McGrath’s first-person narrative develops.
As the story lurches from one set of clues to another, the reader is struck by the impression that the current episode/paragraph is dashed off merely for the sake of getting to the next and this becomes a problem when it looks like the writing doesn’t know where to go: one loses count of the number of instances of needless reiteration of irrelevant information – it is no exaggeration to say dozens, if not hundreds, of pages pass by in this fashion. Similarly, Pessl’s descriptive efforts begin to run out of steam: after the impressive prologue and first eighty or so pages of prose that veritably bristle with foreboding we are suddenly set down among language that returns again and again to the same descriptive clichés (waves crash “violently, their white explosions the only interruption,” “[s]unflower fields rippled in the wind, a flock of crows exploding over them…”). With a few exceptions this continues for the middle four hundred pages or so with the result that the writing takes on a kind of canned, pre-packaged feel. While this may be a strategy on the author’s part intended to show McGrath and company keeping one foot above ground in a world governed by reason and sanity, you don’t write any better about this world by boring your audience.
Electricity is restored to the prose in those brief sections that examine the senses in which Cordova’s already enormous cult of personality takes on yet another – online – dimension: in this regard the author is sketching out new territory in attempting to come to terms with the manner in which Cordova’s works are magnified and stretched beyond their bounds through online chatter, rumor and innuendo. The novel seems to hint at a parallel between the sense in which these communications take place in a kind of echo chamber that magnifies participants most basic fears and phobias while seeming to valorize paranoia and the crisis Cordova wanted to precipitate in his viewers: a shock so devastating as to set one beside or out of one’s normal self though “mortal fear.” These sections taken together make up the strongest part of the novel.
It has been said that writing is like a chess match in which you are constantly checking yourself – the problem with Night Film begins with the fact that the seat opposite is vacant: at no point do we feel that McGrath is truly engaging/fighting Cordova, nor do we ever experience a confrontation during which the relationship between art and terror goes past the point of merely being posited and is subjected to a rigorous cross examination. As I already noted, structural issues are partially at fault: the author seems to have decided from the start that this novel would be a “literary thriller” and so was determined to produce a hybrid: a book of ideas channeled through the template of a detective story. Literary thrillers have, however, never really been thrillers in the sense that Elmore Leonard intends when he calls his books thrillers: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has been called a literary thriller but the voice that speaks in this book is most un-thriller-like: it is a voice that is practically at war with itself so difficult is the task of remembering the Nanking Massacre in a language and culture from which it had been systematically erased. Pessl is a talented writer no doubt and Night Film is at times brilliant but it is hard not to feel that inside somewhere is a better book trying to get out.