I was on an overnight bus careening through northwestern Argentina when I read the final chapters of Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. My bobbing headlamp was likely a hazard to the driver, but I had no choice. There was no turning away from Pessl’s “shrewdly playful narrative” and jaunty protagonist Blue van Meer, the motherless, whip-smart daughter of a rock star political scientist, whose sprawling visiting professorships have molded his daughter into academia’s equivalent of an army brat. In Special Topics, Blue narrates the final new school of her K-12 career, where she falls in with a group of elitist misfits and their ringleader teacher and begins drifting away from her father’s soapbox reality. Blue’s story is not a coming-of-age snooze; it’s quip-happy and brilliantly entertaining, with underage debauchery, literary wit, and a suspicious death that lends the book a whodunit quality.
So when I sat down with Pessl’s second novel Night Film, I was prepared to devote every waking, non-working hour to reaching the end. In the prologue, Pessl introduces us to the legend of filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, the wildly successful and notoriously reclusive genius behind the world’s most warped, gruesome, and utterly captivating movies (some “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror”). His twenty-four-year-old daughter Ashley, a piano virtuoso and Amherst grad, has committed suicide—or allegedly committed suicide, according to the novel’s protagonist Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist who suspects that Cordova’s dark ways extend beyond the screen.
Five years earlier, McGrath’s career disintegrated in a storm of slander after he reported some unsubstantiated information about Cordova’s questionable character. After Ashley’s death, McGrath reopens his investigation in an attempt to resurrect his own credibility. Early on he stumbles across nineteen-year-old Nora, an aspiring actress who, while manning the coat check at a hotel bar, had encountered Ashley hours before her death; and twenty-five-year-old Hopper, a small-time drug dealer who knew Ashley from a juvie rehab excursion a la Outward Bound. Not content to be questioned and discarded, Nora and Hopper insert themselves into the investigative effort and, much to McGrath’s chagrin, a wayward team of detectives is born.
Even in the midst of Pessl’s snappy prose, the unlikeliness of a grizzled, middle-aged journalist taking on a couple of kid assistants is a tough sell for me. Among other genres, Night Film at times feels like an underdog-against-the-odds flick, with McGrath carting his ragtag crew around New York as he retraces Ashley’s steps, trying to piece together her demise. The sidekicks are clearly a liability: Nora breaks character and blows McGrath’s cover at an upstate mental institution while Hopper sleeps off his hangover in the backseat of McGrath’s early-90s BMW. But they wise up and start acting more like seasoned PIs as the story progresses. Hopper conceals his Spanish skills and garners more than an interpreter’s willing to share from a hotel housekeeper, and Nora gains access to The Blackboards, an online community of hardcore Cordovites, when McGrath doesn’t even know how to reset an IP address.
With The Blackboards and a handful of other screenshot-style sections, Night Film breaks from a straight narrative text, creating a twenty-first century ecosystem that is true to the culture of fame and fandom in 2013. Pessl reveals Cordova’s life story through a TIME.com photo slideshow, complete with Facebook likes and share counts. The investigative team relies heavily on deep arsenals of message boards and comments in pursuit of truths, rumors, and opinions about Cordova. At one point, Nora remarks that a search for a name that turns up no Google results is “the scariest result of all.”
Nora, for my money, is the book’s most likeable character and often the object of Pessl’s most inspired, playful writing. McGrath initially pegs her for a standard-issue transplant to New York City—the type hanging out in Murray Hill bars “wearing black dresses from Banana Republic, Band-Aids over blisters”—but turns out she was “raised by a pack of free-spirited geriatrics” at a Florida retirement community and totes around an “heirloom” parakeet inherited from a string of deceased surrogate parents. Throughout the book, she’s thoughtful and wise in comparison with Hopper (an iPhone addict and loose cannon) and McGrath (jaded and curmudgeonly). McGrath grows to appreciate her, too: “The girl was like one of those picture books with pages that unfold and unfold all the way out, which caused children’s eyes to grow wide. I suspected she’d never stop unfolding.”
Night Film shares this accordion quality—it’s a circus of leads and clues and people who may or may not know something key about Ashley’s unraveling. The investigative trio cabs it all over Manhattan, throwing wads of cash around for hotel guest lists and climbing through windows of Upper East Side townhouses. They crash a mobster-esque party at an exclusive Long Island nightclub and take McGrath’s five-year-old daughter to a derelict antique shop in pursuit of an estranged, possibly maniacal friend of the Cordovas. It’s nimble and entertaining, but it’s also a little unruly. Supporting characters come and go quickly, described in vibrant detail as they catch and throw zingers, but it’s not easy keeping track of who’s who and who matters and why and the rest of the five Ws.
During Night Film’s launch event at PowerHouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn, Pessl talked about writing Special Topics with the story plotted out in Excel spreadsheets, but said with this book, she wanted to “fumble along” with her characters. I love a good spreadsheet and really loved the product of Pessl’s process the first time around, so it occurs to me that I went into Night Film excited for a repeat performance. But this is just a completely different kind of book—intentionally so. The creative process was more exciting, Pessl said, if she was starting from square one instead of building on what she learned from her first novel.
The launch event’s moderator, Vogue theatre critic Adam Green, raised the question of Night Film as a literary novel, versus a mystery, versus a thriller, which gave me pause about my difficulty taking the story seriously. I consider myself deeply appreciative of literary novels but less drawn to the conventions of mysteries and thrillers. These interwoven genres are inherently a little hokey, rife with flat characters and farfetched scenarios. Sure, these components exist in more literary texts too—Dickens certainly went that route—but the world of crime and horror is packed with perfunctory victims and villains and of course the cliffhanger, right on schedule. Fun, yes. Entertaining, yes. But with a whiff of a conveyor belt, too. Since that factory-fresh quality is not my personal preference, I tend to forget that these are also carefully honed techniques.
In Night Film, Pessl’s got all the conventions of a thriller in place, plus a smattering of black magic and dodgy criminals and lustful teenagers. It’s a feast of every conceivable horror movie plot twist, served up potluck-style and crammed on a sideboard. There’s the tough woman detective who hops on the M104 bus to discretely hand McGrath the NYPD case file from Ashley’s autopsy. The wild-haired mental hospital nurse who comes crashing out of the woods and falls against the hood of McGrath’s moving car to convey a mysterious tip. The series of spooky small children who crossed Ashley’s paths in her final weeks. Enchantments: a bustling East Village witchcraft supply store, full of New Yorkers who have apparently “given up on shrinks and yoga and thought, ‘Hell, let’s try magic.’” And McGrath’s longtime source Wolfgang Beckman, a renowned film professor with obsessive scholarly knowledge of Cordova. McGrath routinely flashes back to his audited lectures to piece together obscure clues; you can almost hear the voice-over.
But despite having many of these elements at play, Night Film is more original than that. It is a thriller novel about horror films, with an ominous, vaguely meta sense that McGrath and company could very well be putty in Cordova’s devious directorial hands. Pessl has created an on-page world where people revel in the on-screen experience of twisted psychoses and unspeakable violence. They clamor to see the darkest innards of human nature and seek out the adrenaline of watching horrible things happen. They love the ghastliness that is Cordova—an infatuation with terror to which I can’t relate. I watch the least horrific of horror films with my hands plastered over my eyes, and my threshold for loud noises, blood, guts, and suspense is about negative-four. My blood pressure is rising just scrolling through IMDB, trying to jog my memory for titles I’ve seen.
When the eerie music swells and the bonehead investigative journalist marches right into the desolate greenhouse where the menacing gardener keeps his blood-drenched hedge shears, the visibility of formula hurts a little, at least for me. But it also proffers a whole different skillset from Pessl. She’s a fiction writer and lifelong film fanatic who knows the ingredients of both inside-out. She’s dabbled in screenwriting herself, an undertaking she described during the PowerHouse event as a “comedy screenplay of Anna Karenina,” but ultimately found her way back to the novel because “you can have 500 extras and you don’t have to pay them.” That’s exactly what Pessl has done with Night Film—written a story shaped and sized for the big screen.
Alyssa Vine lives in New York.