Dead girl. Red coat. Cynical reporter. The basic ingredients for a cracking thriller are here in Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel that opens with its hero chasing a ghost and segues into a series of mocked-up web articles telling of a famous girl’s death. The girl is Ashley Cordova, who came to mean many different things to the myriad characters that populated Pessl’s world. She’s the daughter of Stanislas Cordova, the enigmatic filmmaker whose troubled family legacy drives the novel’s central mystery: Why did Ashley throw herself to her death?
Cordova is a crazy-quilt of eccentric filmmakers, descriptions of his work evoking David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Philippe Grandrieux, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrickand even Robert Aldrich: in an example of Pessl’s meticulous background work which integrates Cordova into a fictional popular culture, he gets credit for the ominous suitcase referenced in Pulp Fiction, which actually originated with Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. The mystery surrounding his private life suggest a cult leader, a Lovecraftian boogeyman who’s never been seen, who may not even exist.
In this sense Cordova exists as a fantastical figure, since the real-life creators of such work usually turn out to be normal, troubled romances aside. Synopses of his filmography are offered throughout, tidbits to look forward to, which is an achievement in itself. Though Night Film is, of course, only a book, it’s a difficult task to create a fictional genius and give a credible impression of non-existent work that merits his reputation. Pessl does so.
If only Pessl’s enthusiasm for fleshing out Cordova’s art were equalled elsewhere in her writing. Despite the tech-savvy presentation with multiple webpages and articles mocked up to give Cordova’s world credence, the prose isn’t up to snuff: every journalist and interview subject speaks in Pessl’s awkward portentousness and bad poetry. Last-act revelations about the truth behind Cordova’s mystique can’t save these passages. If another voice couldn’t be successfully created to deliver the information contained within, the interludes should have been dropped altogether. Included, they only invite comparisons like “a poor man’s House of Leaves” - which is far from the relatively classical, gothic procedural which the plot comprises.
As a thriller, the novel struggles with pacing. The first half of the book could be condensed considerably, and the novel could lose about a third of its pages overall without losing any of the necessary exposition. The interviews conducted by first-person narrator and disgraced journalist Scott McGrath—who Pessl helpfully informs us has some Scottish in him—are utterly repetitive, as numerous characters who saw or knew Ashley before she died relate anecdotes about her inimitable spirit and ghostliness, all delivered as if with a flashlight under the chin. For all that these stories figure into the penultimate twist, the information could be condensed into only a couple of scenes and the mammoth first act would clip along much more quickly.
McGrath is a fairly uninteresting narrator—character details include an ex-wife (whom he never tires of joking about—readers may feel otherwise), an adoring young daughter, a tarnished reputation, and those damn middle-age good looks which will inevitably send his pretty young sidekick into at least one futile romantic attempt. The sidekick in question is Nora, a street urchin and aspiring actress who latches onto McGrath’s quest to expose the Cordova family’s dark secrets with irritating enthusiasm. By the time she settles in as his professional assistant, they’ve taken to affectionately nicknaming each other Woodward in Bernstein, a charming touch that makes McGrath somewhat more likeable through her friendship and loyalty.
Hardly an original creation, Nora nevertheless feels real and familiar in a way no one else in the novel’s cast of characters quite does, slipping free of literary cliché. Pessl’s clanging similes sound appropriate in her mouth, a girl who’s lived far too much for her age and hasn’t quite learned how to talk about her experiences. Secondary sidekick Hopper, an aloof drug dealer with a mysterious connection to Ashley, has a similarly rewarding arc, though he’s kept at arm’s distance until he inevitably tells all.
Though it drags for the first half, making Pessl’s penchant for pop culture references or bizarre metaphors in lieu of description all the more maddening, Night Film reveals some refreshing depths in the later pages. Revelations about Ashley’s life and her relationship with her father cast her reputation as a beautiful spectre into tragic relief: a girl whose suffering inspired not help when she needed it but awe and objectification. The novel has far too many twists—the most predictable one of all spills out in one scene of dialogue with McGrath’s film professor confidante and then becomes altogether forgotten by the next major scene of revelation—for the discoveries to be truly effective, and once again some condensing is badly needed. Never mind that the plot leaves so many loose ends that a satisfying resolution might be impossible.
What Pessl leaves the reader with is another ambiguity, a moment on the verge of absolute truth, in which Ashley’s mystery might be totally solved, and McGrath might be about to capture smoke in a jar. For once, Pessl knows when to end a scene; as with all good mysteries, the killer might be found out, but the girl herself remains unsolved.