A Fine Sophomore Novel from the Author of an Amazing Debut

Night Film: A Novel by Marisha Pessl (Random House, 624 pp., $28.00)

A few years back, Netflix held a million-dollar competition to improve its movie recommending algorithm. The contest participants noticed one movie in particular created a programming nightmare: Napoleon Dynamite. Viewers loved it or hated it, and it was difficult to predict why they felt the way they did.

Readers had a similar reaction to Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Many reviewers loved her overstuffed prose, the literary references, the over-the-top plot and the inscrutable characters. Plenty of writers were jealous of Pessl’s attractive author photo, huge advance, and dismissed her book as overwrought.

I loved the book. I’ve read it ten times and love it even more now. I once unfriended someone on Facebook who told me I was an idiot to recommend it. Special Topics is sprawling, hugely ambitious, and completely captivating.

Pessl’s new book, Night Film, is just as overstuffed, and just as fantastic. As in Special Topics, Pessl has invented an entire universe of references and characters, starting with the controversial and reclusive director, Stanislas Cordova. Cordova’s horror movies go beyond horror. Cordova’s goal is to force viewers to “have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out.” The actors who appear in them sometimes disappear after the film is completed. The films themselves are banned and Cordova fans share bootleg tapes and screen the movies in the underground tunnels of the subway in Paris. Is Cordova a genius or a monster? Is he even real? There are no photographs of him and he never leaves his vast estate in upstate New York.

Marisha Pessl.

Enter Scott McGrath, a successful investigative journalist who gets a mysterious tip about Cordova. When he follows the lead – he never learns if it was real or a set-up – he becomes obsessed with Cordova. McGrath becomes convinced Cordova is evil and says so in an interview, which promptly ends his promising career and his marriage.

The novel begins a few years after McGrath’s fall from grace. McGrath learns that Cordova’s daughter Ashley has committed suicide at the age of 24. McGrath teams up with two kids who knew Ashley, Nora and Hopper, to try to solve the mystery of her death. The novel veers from details of Cordova’s films, so brilliantly drawn you wish they existed, the occult, Ashley’s red coat, tattoo parlors and piano stores, all circling around the inevitable visit to the Cordova estate, where all of the movies are filmed.

Night Films is patchy in places – Pessl likes to over-italicize and over-explain – but the penultimate section of the novel is positively thrilling. McGrath spends a few terrifying hours in the massive sound stage where the director works, and walks through the sets of all of the movies Cordova has made. This section of the book is, to quote Cordova, “sovereign, deadly, and perfect.”

I’m less sure less sure about the ending. I’m not sure I even understood it. But I’ll read Night Films again and again.

Night Film: A Novel by Marisha Pessl (Random House, 624 pp., $28.00)

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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