Stanislas Cordova is a director of “night films,” psychologically terrorizing horror movies that are created, distributed, watched and discussed mostly in secret – in sound stages buried in the woods; in underground screenings; on a deep-web message board – and Cordova’s actors and associates too often die tragically, suffer life-altering injuries, disappear, or go crazy. Cordova is beyond enigmatic: handsome, reclusive, never seen, rarely photographed or interviewed, the commander of a rural compound where he lives and films, he is a pastiche of Lynch and Malick and von Trier and Kubrick, gone way-weirder.
Rakish journalist Scott McGrath has been nearly destroyed by Cordova, too: His career and marriage were snuffed out after he wildly and uncharacteristically accused the director of some vague but significant sin, without any evidence; years later, when Cordova’s beautiful, prodigious 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, kills herself by way of an elevator shaft in a New York squat, McGrath reopens his investigation, certain that there is something about Ashley’s death that will reveal Stanislas Cordova for what he is.
The curiosities of the two Cordovas impel Night Film, a sprawling but intricate thriller (one that’s so creepy you might find yourself keeping the book in another room at night, like I did, unless you’re up until dawn with it) that follows McGrath, his live-in assistant, Nora, and Hopper, a drug-dealing friend of Ashley’s, through every possible scenario, and many unlikely corners of New York, looking for proof of something. It’s a procedural, mostly, which is a familiar way to tell a story, but the book is constructed so delicately and with so much sensory detail that something like Gone Girl, to which Night Film is being compared, seems by-the-numbers.
Marisha Pessl’s award-winning first book, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, established her as a writer with a beautifully maximalist voice and style, and something of a literary manic-pixie dream girl; that book also involved a suicide, a dead mother, and an intense father-daughter relationship.
In Night Film, though, Pessl’s imaginative reach feels almost infinite; the book includes a beyond-completist filmography, and critical theories about Cordova’s filmmaking, casts and surrounding lore that is so total and real-feeling that the book’s length almost – but not quite – justifies itself. (Pessl also includes McGrath’s research materials within the text, fake but convincingly designed web pages, newspaper clippings and Polaroids.)
Pessl’s writing is confident and joyful, even when the story takes one of many sharp turns down a steep, terrifying road. Her fantasies are huge and impressive, but aren’t always disciplined or reliable; sometimes, it feels as though she has got lost in her own ideas, or is using something just because it sounds so good, or is charging toward a plot point. Describing a series of housekeepers, Pessl writes, “They were uniformly short, severe, and middle-aged, with blue eyes, chapped hands, hair dyed the color of artificial candy, and Bolshevik Don’t even sink about it personalities.”
The same happens in the dialogue, and elsewhere, vividly rendered scenes fade when important contextual details are left out. It’s a gift, to be inside of such an immersive and realized world, like this one, and being occasionally snapped out of such hypnosis when a line clangs false, or a twist or reveal is too predictably timed, or over-explained, is especially jarring. (For a book as complex and firm in its purpose as Night Film, it strangely discounts what readers can – and want to – do for themselves.) All of this, though, has nothing on the depth and sum of Pessl’s realized creative ambition, which is staggering.
The ostensible point of both McGrath’s pursuit of Cordova and Night Film itself is whether or not an artist like Cordova requires darkness and transgression in their real life, like the kind that might have implicated Ashley and pushed her to suicide. What the novel really seems to be about instead is what McGrath asks himself over and over: is he determined to find out the truth, about Cordova or about anything, regardless of what else it might take from him? He’s already lost his wife, his career, his reputation. That question is actually a twist on Cordova’s own philosophy; in the fake interview excerpt that opens the book, he says, “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?” McGrath’s answer was right in front of him all along.
Kate Carraway is a columnist and freelance writer based in Toronto.