Readers will immediately get a sense of what they're in for when they read the very first scene of Marisha Pessl's second novel, NIGHT FILM (following her enormously successful debut, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS). Scott McGrath, a struggling journalist, is out for one of his late-night jogs through Central Park when he sees a young woman, distinctive because of her red coat, walking oddly near the reservoir. What follows is a scene straight out of a horror film, the kind of unsettling encounter that McGrath can't get out of his head for days or weeks.
Only later does McGrath realize that the young woman he saw --- and who seemed to be trying to give him some kind of message --- was none other than Ashley Cordova, who turns up at the bottom of a Chinatown warehouse elevator shaft, dead of an apparent suicide, just a few days after their encounter. Ashley is the daughter of acclaimed, notoriously reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, the man who hasn't given a public interview since 1977. Cordova's films are so scary that they aren't shown in regular movie theaters; they are only filmed secretly, late at night, in places like underpasses and tunnels. Cordova's isolated existence on a huge estate in upstate New York is the stuff of intense rumors and speculation among his many fans. And McGrath's own public speculation about Cordova's activities was responsible for his disgrace as a journalist years before.
"Like any good suspense thriller, [NIGHT FILM] keeps readers constantly guessing, consistently on edge. Their expectations are continually shifting, right up until the novel's ambiguous end."
McGrath, however, has never stopped thinking about Cordova --- and after Ashley's death, his interest is rekindled even further. The police have written her death off as a simple suicide, the act of a troubled young woman who had recently escaped from a mental institution. But McGrath isn't convinced that the story is so simple. With the help of a couple of Ashley's young acquaintances (whose assistance he begrudgingly accepts), McGrath sets off on a convoluted path to discover the truth behind Ashley's death and the Cordova family's life. Soon, however, McGrath starts Cordova's own films. Who's in charge here? And will McGrath find the answers he seeks before he ruins his own life?
On the surface, the most striking aspect of NIGHT FILM is its abundance of documentary evidence --- web pages, newspaper articles, police reports --- that readers have a chance to peruse and decipher along with McGrath (as the afterword explains, there's also a mobile app readers can use to unlock additional video "evidence" as they read). This, of course, is a lot of fun, but the book would be just as successful without it. Like any good suspense thriller, it keeps readers constantly guessing, consistently on edge. Their expectations are continually shifting, right up until the novel's ambiguous end.
NIGHT FILM is not just an exercise in creative plotting, however; Pessl's development of Ashley's character through second-hand evidence and her portrayal of McGrath, in particular, bring the novel a sense of humanity. Ashley is revealed to be far more complicated than readers would initially suspect. And McGrath, who seems to adopt a cautiously paternalistic attitude toward his young assistants, even as his own relationship with his ex-wife and young daughter is falling apart, is a character whose motivations readers will be eager to untangle, too. NIGHT FILM looks like a long book, but don’t be fooled; once you read that first scene, you won't want to close the book again until the last.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 23, 2013