Book Review: 'Night Film' by Marisha Pessl

nightfilmmarishapesslrandomhouseJames Chew reviews Night Film by Marisha Pessl. The first review I wrote for this section—way back in September—was of a post-modern psychological horror novel billed as a successor to House of Leaves. So, it feels appropriate to begin the new semester with another review of another post-modern psychological horror novel billed as a successor to House of Leaves. Unfortunately, despite its stylistic pyrotechnics and similar obsession with film, Night Film is a deeply unsatisfying affair that rarely feels more than pedestrian.Pessl begins her novel in medias res with the almost ruined, discredited and oddly hard-boiled journalist Scott McGrath wandering Manhattan and encountering a chilling vision of a girl in red. We learn McGrath torpedoed his glittering career on a catastrophic error of judgement whilst pursuing the elusive horror film-maker, Stanislas Cordova. Naturally, the girl in red turns out to bear a striking resemblance to Cordova's daughter Ashley, a recent suicide. And so, inexorably, McGrath finds himself drawn back into the tangled labyrinth of the underground film-maker, and hence the novel's title.It is a strong if not terribly original premise with the double mystery of both Ashley's death and the character of Cordova himself driving the reader to keep turning pages and forcing an investment in the narrative that McGrath never quite achieves. Pessl deserves praise for the strength of her narrator's voice, perfectly capturing the quirks and tics of a certain kind of middle-aged heterosexual man you would expect to find in a film noir. Equally, however, he never develops beyond the noir cliché—complete with divorce and an inability to relate to his young daughter—and never entirely convinces as an actual human being. This lack of realism extends to the supporting cast, an improbable duo of early twenty-somethings who attach themselves to McGrath: an aspiring and impossibly naïve actress and a drug dealer with a heart of gold. Ashley's story, slowly uncovered, becomes so ridiculous and convoluted as to strip her of any identifiable quality. This lack of realness is certainly not helped by the large cast of caricatures McGrath and his zany hangers-on run into on their quest, from a faded starlet to an embittered academic. In a series of scenes that feel very video-gamey, the trio pump various minor characters for information, which they invariably receive after figuring out the correct key to unlock the inevitable hefty monologue which follows. Nothing feels real, no-one feels like a living person, no-one speaks like an actual human being might speak, which might have itself lent an air of the uncanny to proceedings if Pressl were a more skilled writer.As is, what we have is a lot of improbable people spouting increasingly unlikely and entirely self-contained speeches to each other about characters we never meet, but whose lives appear entirely implausible and equally quite tedious, whilst we lurch between flimsy set-pieces—in one memorable seventy page sequence, quite literally. There's a lot of telling and little showing, best embodied in Cordova's work itself, which is slowly teased as being banned in most countries, hidden from the internet itself, yet when Pessl deigns to actually describe any of his films they appear to be little more than Hitchcock on one of his worse days. At over 600 pages, it's hard to justify a novel this excessive and ridiculous yet equally profoundly boring that, most damningly, never fails to arouse even the slightest chill. A series of irritating twists in the final pages provide the last nail in the coffin. A better writer might have made something of the artificiality of the narrative and the genre constraints in which it operates, but Pessl is not that author and Night Film is deeply mediocre. James Chew Image Credit: all ownership to Random House Inc.