If there’s any justice, the first chapter of LITERARY WUNDERKIND Marisha Pessl’s MUCH-AWAITED SECOND novel, “Night Film,” should go down in literary history as among the most notable formal innovations of this century. It consists of a series of Web pages — 20, all told — pertaining to the untimely death of a young woman, the strange career of her filmmaker father, and AN ENSUING JOURNALISTIC INVESTIGATION.
Both the writing and the design are feats of verisimilitude: Pessl and her designers ape perfectly a New York Times obituary and a Time magazine slideshow, from the irascibility of Internet commenters (“God forbid something be dark, freakish, and so unnerving you question your commercialised, corporate-sponsored view of the world”) to Facebook “Like” buttons. Many of the evocative and completely plausible photos therein were staged especially for the book, using actors that Pessl auditioned herself. They pop up in the newspaper clippings, Web pages, and police dossiers, SIFTED BY A CRUSADING WRITER, that appear throughout the book.
Remarkably, Pessl’s inclusion of the Internet feels not at all gimmicky or forced; the reader forgets that these pages are static and have been laboriously designed. They deepen the mystery Pessl sets out in traditional text. The cumulative effect is entrancing and delightful, infusing the narrative OF THIS WHIP-SMART HUMDINGER OF A THRILLER with urgency and spookiness. It feels, above all things, new.
Although its ingenious design makes “Night Film” an essential read, the book’s successes aren’t entirely reliant upon it. Equally inspired is antagonist Stanislas Cordova, one of the best villains in recent memory. A director of horror films, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public since 1977. He lives on a spooky compound in upstate New York purchased by his wife, an Italian heiress who died under mysterious circumstances. The story kicks off when his daughter Ashley’s body is discovered in a abandoned Chinatown building and his sworn enemy — first-person narrator Scott McGrath — is drawn toward Cordova in spite of his better judgment.
McGrath is a bestselling, tough-guy investigative journalist AND AUTHOR in the mode of Sebastian Junger (sample book title: “Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas”). Years earlier, he denounced Cordova on “Nightline’’ after a frightened man called him with a cryptic message: “There’s something he does to the children.” Cordova sued him for defamation, won, and ruined McGrath’s career.
When the novel begins, McGrath is bored, drunk, and lonely with little to lose. He takes it upon himself to find out what happened to Ashley, hoping to redeem his reputation in the process.
McGrath is a serviceable narrator whose hubris and cluelessness provide a welcome breeze of situational irony in a story that otherwise goes for terror of the sock-curling variety. Dark figures lurk. Spells are cast. Beautiful women die. Creepy dolls are unearthed in sinister rural settings. The prologue, during which McGrath is chased around the Central Park Reservoir by a woman in a red coat, nods deeply to Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror classic, “Don’t Look Now,” all foggy atmosphere and fleeting glimpses of the unspeakable.
Cordova himself is an homage to the towering auteurs of films past, their outsized personalities and passion for the craft. There are echoes of John Cassavetes in Cordova’s immigrant childhood, of Alfred Hitchcock in the way he tortured actresses, of Roman Polanski in his exile (and, well, mistreatment of children). But if Cordova were real, he’d make them all look like poseurs. His films (sample titles: “Thumbscrew,” “At Night All Birds Are Black”) are “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror.” They are shown in secret screenings held in tunnels and abandoned buildings, poured over by obsessive fans on a password-protected Deepnet message board. They are parsed in Columbia University classrooms by a film professor and Cordova zealot who named his cats after the director’s leitmotifs.
Cinephiles will marvel at Pessl’s DETAILED knowledge of and love for film history and culture — also on display in her MUCH-LAUDED 2006 DEBUT, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” AN INTRICATELY-PLOTTED, POSTMODERN MURDER MYSTERY FEATURING A TEENAGE NARRATOR AND HER ACADEMIC FATHER PRESENTED IN THE FORM OF A COURSE SYLLABUS.
Here she conjures an entire oeuvre, as well as its production, reception, and mediation. But her biggest triumph is the specter of Cordova himself. “He’s a myth, a monster, a mortal man,” she writes. One who, by the book’s end, many readers will wish desperately was real.