Thursday, July 11, 2013

Marisha Pessl - Night Film (2013)

Perhaps aestheticians have a name for this issue: I consider the book not very good but yet read all of it.  If I didn't force myself then maybe it's not so bad after all?  Aren't good, simple stories their own reward?  Most likely it's more that the book is mostly a subject that interests me and admittedly has a narrative question that feels worth seeing how it plays out.  (It's not worth it.)  And yes good, simple stories have a definite value but they're not so easy to find.  (Instead of Night Film if you're looking for a book about obsession and subterranean cinema then try Tim Lucas' Throat Sprockets and if you prefer the conspiracy/maybe supernatural approach then Ben Wheatley's genuinely bizarre film Kill List.)

Stanislas Cordova is an admired director whose films are considered unusually intense and deeply disturbing proves into the human mind but who lives in seclusion.  The narrator is a journalist whose career bottomed out when he threatened the director in an interview.  (Exactly, or even roughly, why he did this is never adequately explained though it's a flaw so obvious that even the narration offers a weak attempt.)  When Cordova's daughter apparently commits suicide the journalist decides to investigate, dragging along a part-time drug dealer and a homeless naif who moved to the big city to be an actress.  Along the way are conspiracies (or are they?), hints of the supernatural (or are they?) and possibilities of criminal depravity (or are they?).

The book starts basically like a mystery with our fearless investigators tracking down leads and collecting information.  Or at least that appears to have been the intention since it really feels more like a videogame - the trio goes to one person, hears their story, goes to the next, hears their story, goes to the next and so on.  It's a stream of stories with no real attempt at sifting the evidence, at deduction, at thinking.  Basically they just go for a ride.  It does get more complex as it becomes apparent that the journalist's two helpers have hidden agendas and as the stories start to form an odd picture.

For such a narrative the book is far too long.  I read the ebook and wondered why it seemed like I wasn't making much progress until finding out that the physical book is listed at 624 pages.  Yes, maybe Pynchon could have done something with that but Pessl seems to have no real idea where this is going.  When I say a book is too long usually I mean about 10-20% could have easily been cut but in this case I think almost half the book could have been trimmed and vastly improved it.  Where indeed is Max Perkins when we need him?

The supernatural element builds slowly and not very effectively.  Pessl clearly was aiming for a story that could be interpreted either as supernatural or as mundane but she should have read Turn of the Screw more closely, or perhaps more to the point John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court.  The supernatural parts are mostly second and third-hand stories until we get to one extended section where the journalist has his own encounter. (In the ebook it's between two completely black pages but I don't know if that's a quirk of the ebook or if the finished book will have that.  In any case it's separated from the other, number chapters.)  Maybe we're supposed to be in doubt about how to resolve this section but even within the story it's so clearly an hallucination that the supernatural part comes across half-hearted.

One odd element of the book is the director Cordova.  He's considered one of the greats and so famous that non-film buffs recognize his name.  In a clever move Pessl gives him half a career in Hollywood complete with Oscars for readers who think that means anything then a second half as a barely distributed independent for readers who think that means anything.  The odd part is that none of the descriptions live up to this - they sound like rather routine efforts.  The discrepancy is so blatant that I almost think Pessl is doing this deliberately except that after going through the whole book it's hard to see that she has the ability to pull that off.  Cordova's films nearly all sound like gialli and I don't mean that in a vague way - if I heard the plot descriptions with no other information I would have assumed the film was a giallo.  (Though one sounds like a loose remake of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.)  But it's not just the plots since nothing about the films' atmosphere or style or mood or anything really sound at all substantial.  I think mostly Pessl just lacks a critic's ability and consequently can't describe imaginary works except in the blandest press-agent way.  This isn't helped that the novel has a film professor who is basically satirical (and this time I do think it's deliberate).  He spouts superlatives, obsesses over "symbols" in a way that has nothing to do with actual art (metaphysical poets notwithstanding) and gathers fawning students literally at his feet.

The book does have recreations of websites, newspaper clippings, photographs and other such things that perhaps are intended to make the story more "real".  To me they're more a distraction - hey the designer really did peg the look of Time's website.  And of course rather than think that's a photograph of the actual daughter in the story I can't help but wonder who the model is?  A friend of the author?  Or just somebody the photographer hired?  It doesn't help that the tone is just a bit off.  There's a mention of a film being "condemned" by the MPAA which is something that doesn't happen.  (Unless you want to argue that the ratings system does that.)  At another point is a DVD that can't be copied which of course has never existed.  This whole attempt to make Cordova as a shadowy director of barely seen films doesn't ring true.  Such films would have been torrented in an instant.  There are in fact films that are very difficult to see but mostly it's because these have very limited audiences unlike Cordova's aggressive fan base.

By the time Night Film starts to wrap up the story it goes through several endings - not conflicting ones but just like it won't stop.  Imagine a romance where after two hours you watch the couple walk hand-in-hand off into the sunset....and then see them wake up the next morning to figure out something about their mutual friends before a fade out....and then they head off to lunch....  You get the idea.  It's annoying, though, that when the book gets to the final final end Pessl pulls a trick.  Most of the book is overly detailed about movements and talks but now the narrator gets coy and stops before revealing anything else. The end.  It's not mysterious or ambiguous or artistic - it's just a flat-out cheat because it's so unlike the rest of the book.  (Though to be fair much of this last sequence reads like another hallucination and I wouldn't be surprised that it was all written well after the book was completed as an afterthought.)