Night Film by Marisha Pessl

“Life had been a suit I’d only put on for special occasions. Most of the time I kept it in the back of my closet, forgetting it was there. We were meant to die when it was barely stitched anymore, when the elbows and knees were stained with grass and mud, shoulder pads uneven from people hugging you all the time, downpours and blistering sun, the fabric faded, buttons gone.”

Night Film started off with so much promise. I first heard of it when it was promoted in an Alice Isn’t Dead podcast by Joseph Fink, who I trusted entirely not to lead me astray. Then my brother started reading it on our family Kindle library, rhapsodising about how good it was to such an extent that I had to get in on the action. And for a good 40-60%, I was loving it.

The book starts off with a lot of scene-setting in the guise of various media forms – magazine articles, newspaper snippets, message board posts etc. It also comes with its very own Easter Egg app – scan the page whenever a mysterious symbol appears, and you’ll be treated to extras in the form of video clips, audio files, diary extracts… I thought it was just so cool.

And then around the halfway mark, these extras disappear almost entirely, the novel changes tone, and it all shifts from something that kept me up at night, to something that had me fighting to keep my eyes open.

Night Film is the story of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath, exiled by his peers after attempting to expose enigmatic film producer Stanislas Cordova. Cordova is described as being the mastermind behind a series of films so dark, depraved and twisted that connoisseurs gather in Parisian catacombs to watch masterpieces deemed too obscene for the big screen. Pessl does an excellent job creating an air of general creepiness that pervades much of the text. After several years in the journalistic wilderness, Scott springs back into action to investigate the mysterious suicide of Cordova’s twenty-four year old daughter Ashley. During early parts of the novel, Scott forms uneasy alliances while tracing Ashley’s last days, visiting the psychiatric hospital she was held in against her will and trying to piece together what led her to end her life.

I was utterly engrossed in the novel for much of the first half, racing from one revelation to another. It was easy to overlook the constant abuse of italics (seriously, try reading this paragraph without getting a headache: “One rarely had to worry about follow-throughs, follow-ups, follow the leaders, or any kind of consistency in people due to no machinations of one’s own but the sheer force of living here. New York hit its residents daily like a great debilitating deluge and only the strongest – the ones with Spartacus-styled will – had the strength to stay not just afloat but on course.”) plus attempts to force cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter (which rapidly becomes wearing considering there are over one hundred chapters in all). But somewhere along the way, the plot devolves into the realms of the occult – black magic, witchcraft and woo woo spookiness that turned a promising thriller into something almost… silly.

There’s an exceptionally long section in which Scott and friends break into the grounds of Cordova’s mystery mansion searching for clues. He spends so long in what reads like a second-hand account of someone re-telling a personal nightmare (are other people’s dreams ever interesting when recounted out loud and at length?) that I started to lose not just the plot but the will to live.

Ultimately, I’m not sorry to have read Night Film, but I am sorry that its early promise was squandered by the end of the book. The last Easter Egg is an exceptionally creepy diary entry from an actress literally trapped in the walls of Cordova’s mansion, and had Pessl managed to distribute that air of terror evenly throughout the novel, it could really have been something special.

[Read from 26-30 April 2017]

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