Marisha Pessl’s new book Night Film revolves around the mysterious, untimely death of Ashley Cordova, the piano-prodigy daughter of a reclusive cult-followed Lynch/Kubrick/Polanski-type film director, Stanislas Cordova.
Although at a surface level it might seem to trot out the “Female Relative of a Male Professional” trope that an astonishing amount of novels deploy, the frictions of that dichotomy are what sustain the story. While “Night Film” is ostensibly about the many repercussions of artistry, Pessl did a wonderful job weaving each element into the story rather than just forming a collage of interesting ideas.
For instance: I tried to approach with caution since I am a fan of classical music and David Lynch and Thomas Pynchon. I was worried that there’d be too much replication that those “In The Know” would see past and disregard. But with Lynch—even though there is a picture of Cordova from behind in a Rolling Stone article, which looks precisely like Lynch from that angle, including his slight waved disheveled hairdo—she doesn’t just mime his work or life. You can tell Pessl is a Lynch fan, and she has admitted as much in interviews. But rather than mimicking his work in her writing—which would come off scraggly and insincere at best—she writes in a way that is clearly informed rather than simply formed by his art.
Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova is portrayed in a nearly Lacanian Father way, the not-there aspect applying to various parts in his life, whether in his work, social, or familial duties. He is a cult artist, and as their fans are wont, legions of adulation-riddled fanatics dissect every frame in his films and brim up a passion that overflows in secret online destinations and college classrooms.
There is a shroud of darkness sprinkled throughout the novel, but I actually expected much more of it. You do get a feel of Cordova’s films, especially later on in the novel, when things turn ominous as the real and imagined worlds collide and weave together. The major players pushing the plot forward include a dedicated and disenfranchised journalist, Scott McGrath, and two young ragamuffins connected partially to the crime scene. Cordova was the reason McGrath was disenfranchised, so when Cordova’s daughter dies, McGrath wants to get to the bottom of it. He wants the truth, which isn’t always clear to see or accept when jealousy and the desire for revenge have the possibility to cloud judgment. He tries to piece together the mystery while his own life is falling out of control.
The story was fun to follow, and the 624 pages flowed much quicker than expected. It was slightly experimental, but that’s only in relation to the novel as a form. Post-postmodern gimmickry isn’t all that experimental in these hyperlinked days, so the websites, magazine articles, polaroids, notes and errata sprinkled throughout the text aren’t as foreign a concept as, say, readers of Barth’s “Giles Goat-Boy” may have felt in 1966. Nonetheless, the hijinks were kept at bay for the most part, and it was a straightforward story with many twists and speculations that readers of all kinds can get into. Fans of straight genre thriller or mystery books would enjoy Pessl’s “Night Film,” as well as those of us puffed in pretension with literary fiction’s finely tuned prose.