Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Night Film (Marisha Pessl)

There are books in the world that I hear about that, for one reason or another, fill up my insides with flames and make me want to read them so badly. Night Film was one of those books, but I'm not sure why, exactly. It's kind of a mystery thriller, which--as I have mentioned several times--is a bit outside my genre tastes. It's also about a cult filmmaker, and I feel pretty removed from that world, too. I like my movies animated or Oscar-nominated, which demonstrates my evidently endless ability to ooze pretention.

There is a film director in Pessl's world called Cordova, renowned for his horrifying cinema that aims to gross out, free the spirit and reveal things about human nature. The movies are scary and profound, banned from public showings, forcing the obsession to move underground, occasionally literally (with movies played in tunnels beneath Paris, for example). One such person sucked into the Cordova cult is investigative reporter Scott McGrath.

He once received a mysterious phone call from an alleged former driver of the eccentric director, imparting to McGrath a message that Cordova does something dangerous to children. McGrath tried to bring Cordova down and ends up seriously damaging his name and position as a journalist when he is unable to back up the story or locate the driver who called him. But he gets sucked back in when Cordova's piano prodigy daughter, Ashley, commits suicide, a story Scott doesn't totally believe. Determined to discover what really happened to her, he launches into a new investigation of the mysterious filmmaker.

I'm going to be honest--from the moment when McGrath finds out that Ashley has committed suicide, I was bored. It was like The Cuckoo's Calling; the "mystery" didn't feel particularly mysterious because there was nothing to suggest that something sinister had gone down. There were no mysterious locked doors or bottles of poison with strange fingerprints or anything. Again like the Galbraith/Rowling book, I wasn't much invested in the dead, young, beautiful woman, either, who everyone idolizes despite what struck me as lackluster personality.

But I stuck with it because Pessl did do a great job making the whole investigation slightly creepy. Perhaps I was filled with minor dread because I read the book only at night (and I'm talking late nights, like after midnight), but I hesitate to say that. I think there really is a good command of atmospheric uneasiness here, so good work on that. The characters are also pretty interesting; unlike some other horror/thriller books I read where the characters were bare-bones, I think that the main three investigating characters in Night Film are, for the most part, well-done. Scott McGrath is an annoying narrator when the author feeds him overly analytical statements; I don't mean analytical about the case, but about the world around him. When his apartment gets robbed, a picture is hanging crookedly on the wall, and Marisha make Scott analyze the symbolism of such a disturbance in a way that is absolutely nonsensical. There is also a bizarre moment of attempted romance that I didn't feel was in-character, nor was it necessary since it goes nowhere. Boo.

But the story falls apart. Before long, the mystery obtains a supernatural quality--deals with the devil, curses, etc. It's not a direction that anything I read about the book hints at, and it doesn't make much sense. McGrath is skeptical that any such nonsense is at work, and so I was I. But you get all the way to the end of the book, and you've decided that you have no choice but to accept these magical elements as real and part of the story, and then all of that explanation and build-up (and I'm talking serious pages devoted to it--there's about 600 pages in this book and ~400 of them have to do with the otherworldly elements) is erased.

Surprise! It's a twist! You've just wasted your time being reluctantly lead to a conclusion only to have it frustratingly taken away. And if that's not enough, then you get another last-minute twist that leads Scott on a stupid extra journey which is very open-ended and not in a good way. It's not a satisfying ending at all. Seriously.

So I'm going to give it three stars. Like I said, it's good at the dread, and if you accept that maybe there are such things as curses from the get-go, you'll do great. Even forgiving all of that, Scott can still get annoying. The book is simultaneously meticulous and a little sloppy. Just didn't work for me.

My rating: 3/5
Night Film on Goodreads
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