Marisha Pessl arrived in a blaze of glory seven or eight years ago. Her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a critically lauded runaway bestseller. I read it and loved every page of it. Then, she did a Donna Tartt and vanished for aeons. I was about to give up on another novel being published when last year along came her follow up, Night Film. Unlike Tartt, the follow up wasn’t as critically reviled as The Little Friend, but it didn’t attract the universal acclaim its predecessor had. But then, lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?
Veering far from her debut, this novel centres on Scott McGrath. An investigative journalist, Scott narrates the tale, telling us how in his relentless pursuit of the notoriously reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, he nuked his own career and turned himself into a journalistic pariah. Now divorced and seriously down on his luck, he is drawn back into the web of Cordova when his 26 year old daughter Ashley is found dead in an apparent suicide. Eager to prove she was in fact murdered, McGrath begins to look into Ashley’s last days on earth, aided and (not always) abetted by two waifs and strays he picks up in the course of his investigation.
Pessl goes all out with the telling of this story. There are recreations of websites, police reports and magazine articles peppered throughout McGrath’s narrative, the attention to detail of which is all highly impressive. And you can’t accuse her of trying to detract from the story, since Pessl can really tell a story, and the history of the Cordova family is undeniably one heck of a story. A Kubrick inspired creation, to be sure, Cordova’s films are banned for their disturbing imagery and violence, his fans hold secret screenings and have a message board set up on the “dark web”, devoted to analysing every frame of them. Rumours and myths about Cordova abound, and McGrath has to try and find the reality in amongst all the crazy if he’s going to discover just what drove Ashley to end her life. Or if someone else ended it for her.
Inevitably, he can’t find that out with pushing himself ever further down the rabbit hole and allowing his life to spin almost entirely out of his own control. As he uncovers evidence of voodoo, witchcraft, black magic, secret sex clubs and underground networks, his obsession threatens to consume him entirely. It is a riveting story, immaculately paced, deep and more layered than you would expect. The supporting cast take a little bit of disbelief suspension, it’s fair to say, but Pessl makes them endearing enough that I forgave their outlandishness. I could have done without the excessive use of italics Pessl uses to make her point as well, but I was gripped from page one and by the time I got to the end I felt like I hadn’t breathed for about 100 pages.
Whether you find the ending a giant cop out or a bravura decision is of course entirely dependent on just how much you believe of everything you read leading up to it. For me, the unravelling of Ashley’s mystery was most definitely the latter. The coda Pessl tacks on though? I wasn’t entirely sure I bought it. All in all, a bloody good read and a worthy successor to Special Topics in Calamity Physics.