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Review: Night Film: A Novel (2013) by Marisha Pessl

IMG_2856Wow. I don’t normally write a lot of reviews but sometimes I feel compelled. I have been transfixed since Saturday by Night Film: A Novel. I have literally done nothing else. I’m the kind of book nerd that, when I had to go somewhere, I bring the book with me just so I can be around it. I’ve dreamed about it two nights in a row; the book and tiny flashlight I use for reading late into the night falling to the floor when I can’t keep my eyes open. Yeah, that level of obsession.

This book is perfect for me because of the subject matter, of course. I love film, I breathe film, it is my first love. At the periphery of the story is reclusive cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. Author Marisha Pessl crafts this character and his entire career and work of art with startling realism to the point where all I want is for him to be real. In the book he has a massive, cult-like following – his career spanning form the late 60’s into the 90’s after which he disappeared from the world. Never appearing in public and the disturbing nature of his films, all which are impossible to find outside the dark net black market and underground secret screenings, Cordova’s legend grows and grows. He is a filmmaker who encourages you to live fearlessly by confronting your deepest fears and desires. Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect. If Cordova’s films do not drive you to madness, they will set you free.

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What really sets this book apart is the delicious bonus material sprinkled through the book. TIME magazine articles, Vanity Fair articles, screen shots from the dark web, hospital records and notes really make this book come alive – and you believe. You believe in Cordova. Then there is an app for your phone with even more material – unlocked by scanning the right pages. Audio, interviews and even a film snippet and posters from Cordova’s films come to life in your hands. The only book I can really compare it to is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which is amazing experience. That book is a “manuscript” from multiple people about a house that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside – and everyone who has read the manuscript has gone mad.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself so let’s start at the beginning. The story begins when Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in an apparent suicide. This sets disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath on a quest to find out the truth about the elusive Cordova once and for all. This being a classic noir story McGrath is as usual a tortured but pretty bland protagonist. He is joined by a quirky 19 year old actress and a 25 year old James Dean-esque pretty boy with secrets. It seems unlikely but somehow it works.

The book is almost 600 pages long with twists and turns and a parade of interesting characters that all add to the legend of Cordova. I noticed that most of the low reviews on Amazon either said that the book was too long or that there were too many characters, but I only feel satisfaction that she did not let one stone unturned and the story moves with enough speed that all the different locations seem fun and interesting. And in the background looms The Peak, Cordova’s multi-million dollar mansion in the country side, which he has not apparently left since his wife drowned on the property 30 years ago and where he now makes all his movies.

“You’ll find that great artists don’t love, live, fuck, or even die like ordinary people. Because they always have their art. It nourishes them more than any connection to people. Whatever human tragedy befalls them, they are never too gutted, because they need only to pour that tragedy into their vat, stir in other lurid ingredients, blast it over a fire. What emerges will be even more magnificent than if the tragedy had never occurred.” – Night Film, p. 377

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It’s obvious that Pessl is a huge movie buff. The skill with which she crafted Cordova can only come from a true love and understanding of film history. I was not surprised at all to read on her website that one of her favorite artists is David Lynch (same as mine) and that she studied film and television. There is a certain power to artists who are able to create their very own universe. Tarantino, Jarmusch, Wong Kar-Wai are others I deeply admire. I can’t get over the absolute brilliance of creating a fictional cult filmmaker who lives in his very own Neverland where he creates his stories of truth and horror. In the real world, this is not possible – but what if? Once your imagination crosses that mental door step, there is no limit to the artist’s power. The myth of the man will forever be the truth, and the work will have to speak for itself. Eventually the novel blurs the lines between reality and the supernatural. Myths have the power to do that, especially when the truth is allowed to be so distorted and unconfirmed.

rscordovaThat’s what the book spoke to me about. It wasn’t really about the mystery of finding out the truth about Ashley, the truth about Cordova or The Peak, although that was important, too. I was blown away by Pessl’s ability to create a myth, which are becoming rarer and rarer in our society today. I wanted Cordova to be real because he was an adult fairy tale. An artist in absolute control, freed from commercialism, free to live and breathe his art. That doesn’t really exist anymore – it probably never did. But the myth is beautiful.

Sure, I felt tinges of jealousy throughout but more than that, I just love being a fan so much. I don’t actually think I’m capable of creating something so complete, ripe with all the longing and mystery and beauty we desire from art. But who knows. I think books tend to find you at the right time for a reason, and I’m feeling so inspired and ready to go into my unknown worlds right now. Small victories, I’ll take them. And feel blessed to exist in a world so full of creativity and beauty, always trying to press against that ceiling (or basement) holding new insight into the human experience.

The book ends the way it has to, of course, although I was in too deep to see it coming. It’s a book about obsessions that makes you obsessed with it. Are you investigating a reclusive filmmaker or are you in one of his films?

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