Pessl’s salability had been remarked upon over a year before the book itself was published: a conventionally attractive thin young white woman, a Barnard grad, a debut novelist, an “actor, writer, and dancer.” It’s no wonder, many observed, that Viking paid well into the six-figures for the book. “It’s not that I am mocking Ms. Pessl’s appearance or writing ability,” blogger Sarah Weinman wrote, “just the publishing world’s almost masochistic desire to let attractive packages, so to speak, dictate their buying guidelines.”
Despite or because of the packaging, the novel sold tremendously. Special Topics racked up rave reviews. The book, by all accounts, was good. The New York Times named it among their top ten books of 2006. Still, reviews and profiles were haunted by Pessl’s face. “Of course, any easy-on-the-eyes young female author with a popular literary novel is going to be called the next Zadie Smith,” read one from the Toronto alt weekly Now. “Pessl doesn’t mind too much.” Gawker even had a series of posts breaking down whether Pessl was “book hot” or “Broadway hot.” I stayed away.
Now, seven years later, her second novel, Night Film, faces much more pressure.
Whenever I try to describe Pessl’s new novel, I immediately take the book out. “Look at this,” I say, flipping through the novel for one of the lengthy sections of primary-source material. I point to a fake New York Times obituary, laid out in a Safari browser window; a Vulture comment section, complete with Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and email buttons; a Time slideshow with—yes—a page for every slide. (Thankfully, in print, it is much easier to skip ahead.) “Can you imagine what this will look like in 20 years?” I ask, “Can you imagine how dated this will look?”
See what I mean? Three pages from Night Film.
In Night Film, the daughter of a magnetic, mysterious director—part David Lynch, part Charles Manson—falls to her death in an elevator shaft in an abandoned Chinatown building. The filmmaker, Stanislav Cordova, is aggressively private, and his life, as well as his daughter Ashley’s, is shrouded in secret. Both father and daughter share a kind of wild genius (if we are to believe the sources), whether an uncompromising filmic vision or a prodigious musical talent. Their charisma leads people near and far from them to go to desperate lengths to conceal, or reveal, their stories.
Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist—one of the few that made a fairly lucrative living at it—lost his professional credibility after making very public, but very under-supported, claims that Cordova is some kind of criminal mastermind. It’s this connection that draws him in again when Ashley is found dead five years later. Readers peruse his research, online and off, throughout the novel.
Danger lies in the insertion of any technology in fiction, whether it is misunderstood, clumsily included, or over-relied upon. It dates a work, but it also helps indicate how well a novel lives in that date: whether something has been captured, or something lost. Pessl’s use of these “exterior” materials, raw slices of data from which readers can draw their own, seemingly unfiltered, opinions, is not new. The first detective novel in the English language, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (an imperialist jewel theft mystery), is compiled of fictional newspaper clippings, letters, diary entries. Dracula, Bram Stoker’s foundational vampire thriller, is constructed the same way.
In these novels, Night Film’s ancestors, no central narrator exists to filter the information presented for readers; though the texts are set up in such a way as to make that very little work at all. Here, Pessl positions McGrath as the sieve through which all of these materials are processed. We read the websites he reads, and then we read what he thinks about it. Here is the problem: he is a boor.
“Well…” She sighed, as if it were the end of the conversation rather than the beginning. This meant, because she was a woman, she’d probably already had this discussion umpteen times in her head.”
It’s hard to come back from “because she was a woman.” The easy, uncritical misogyny of McGrath, whose suspicion of the opposite sex seems to be a character trait simply because it is one Pessl expects a grizzled investigator to have, is an authorial choice that not only highlights what a listless creation he is, it also makes the 500-plus pages readers are asked to spend with him trying.
When someone asked her who she was, she said I’m an actor in the same breathy voice I’d seen people in AA announce I’m an alcoholic. Girls like her moved here by the truckload, hoping to be discovered and to meet Mr. Big but too often ended up in bars in Murray Hill wearing black dresses from Banana Republic, Band-Aids over the blisters on their heels. They’d get their I’ll Take Manhattan taken off them soon enough. To live in this city for any extended period of time required masochism, moral flexibility, skin like an alligators, and mad jack-in-the-box resilience—none of which these faux-confident twenty-very-littles could even begin to wrap their heads around.
It’s this kind of lazy observation that makes me feel, for large portions of the book, Pessl just phoned in it.
Night Film is unabashedly pulpy, dripping in italics and packed full of witches, ritual child sacrifice, secret cults, vast conspiracies, inhospitable islands, and the staples of detective noir: a grumpy investigator, his plucky assistant, a tragic femme fatale. If you are willing to give yourself over to it—the silliness (“Had I already lost my head? Not yet”), the purpling descriptions (plants “clutched at my face and arms like swarming orphans desperate for a handout, for human contact”), the overlong monologues offering easy opinions about obvious subjects (see above)—it can be a fun, fast, goofy read.
Though the book’s extra-narrative ephemera is awkward —particularly the secret online community of Cordova fans, and the faux coffee-stained, stapled, scribbled upon notes—it often offers up the book’s most interesting snippets, the pieces of information blessedly free of the blowhard gumshoe. He is as dull as the book’s center, Cordova, is magnetic.