Night Film – Marisha Pessl

He’s a myth, a monster, and a mortal man.

Stanislas Cordova is a reclusive, underground horror film director. Night Film begins with the news of his 24-year-old daughter Ashley’s suicide. But was it?

Speculation is rife on the internet – the mainstay of the legions of Cordovites who spend hours discussing Cordova’s life and work in minute detail – and it’s also peaked the interest of our protagonist, Scott McGrath. McGrath is an investigative journalist. He’s run into trouble in the past, attempting to discover the truth about Cordova, his films and his mansion – The Peak – where he lives and works, cut off from the rest of the world.

‘Cordova’s a predator – in the same league as Manson, Jim Jones, Colonel Kurtz. I have an inside source who worked with the family for years. Someone needs to terminate this guy with extreme prejudice.’

That inspired titbit cost me my career, my reputation – not to mention a quarter of a million dollars – but that didn’t make it any less true.

McGrath’s not a particularly likeable character himself. Divorced with a young daughter, he doesn’t allow childcare arrangements to get in the way of following a lead. And for McGrath, it’s all about the lead. Which, when those leads come as fast as they do in Night Film, makes for a cracking story.

McGrath finds himself aided by a young man, Hopper, whom he meets whilst examining the scene of Ashley’s death and a young woman, Nora, probably the last person to see Ashley alive – she was working the cloakroom of the restaurant Ashley went to on the night she died.

But Night Film isn’t just a page-turner of a thriller, it’s also a cracking slice of metafiction. Pessl uses pages from the internet to inform us about Ashley’s suicide and Cordova’s background; handwritten notes are seemingly photocopied into the text of the book, as well as photographs, newspaper clippings and transcripts of conversations. And then there’s the dissections of Cordova’s films as well as an enormous twist towards the end of the novel that turns everything you’ve just read on its head. I gasped; I marveled at how bloody clever it all is.

Pessl sends us a warning in the text of the novel too. A warning about our obsession with technology:

“Have you seen the world lately, McGrath? The cruelty, the lack of connection? If you’re an artist, I’m sure you can’t help but wonder what it’s all for. We’re living longer, we social network alone with our screens, and our depth of feeling gets shallower. Soon it’ll be nothing but a tide pool, then a thimble of water, then a micro drop. They say in the next twenty years we’re going to merge with computer chips to cure aging and become immortal. Who wants an eternity of being a machine?”

It’s a warning that McGrath will be forced to take heed of in a variety of ways.

So, is there anything wrong with the book? Well, there are a couple of points where key characters seem to give up a wealth of information a little too easily. However, the reason for this all becomes clear by the end of the novel. This book should come with a health warning though: it will play on your mind even when you’re not reading it and your dreams will be very very strange indeed.

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.

3 thoughts on “Night Film – Marisha Pessl

  1. How interesting! Thanks for those pics of the clippings and texts.

    I know it’s a thriller and something that sounds totally up my alley, but somehow it does not catch my attention as I hoped it would. How did you hear of the book and what called your attention initially?


    • I have a copy of Pessl’s debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics, although it’s on my shelf unread. I’m pretty sure I heard about this one on Twitter and the idea of diving into a film director’s work reminded me of Auster’s Book of Illusions which explores the work of a silent film actor and is a book I love. I’d also just finished reading The Shining Girls when there was a competition on Twitter to win a proof and I was desperate to read another literary thriller.


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