NIGHT FILM. By Marisha Pessl. Random House. 598 pages. $28.
Stanislas Cordova is the empty center of “Night Film,” Marissa Pessl’s baroque second novel (after “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”). He’s nowhere and everywhere. Seek him and he recedes, leaving behind “a crevice, black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown.” He mixes the magical with the mundane: “he’s a myth, a monster, a mortal man.”
Since 1977, the reclusive film director has not spoken in public or shown his face. His films have gone underground. Clandestine screenings pop up in places such as the Paris catacombs. All this we know within the first 20 pages or so. Pessl mimics the way much popular culture reaches out, through computer screen shots: “Vulture,” complete with snarky comments; a Time magazine photo gallery; a New York Times obituary. It’s a truly effective delivery system and a justification for the hopped-up language.
“Everyone has a Cordova story”: the novel’s first line. The teller of this one is Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter on the skids. He’s been professionally discredited and personally cast off, all thanks to Cordova. Psychologically, he’s a mess. Early in the novel, a witness tells him, “The problem with you is you have no respect for murk. For the blackly unexplained.” Let’s say that the events of Pessl’s novel redress that balance.
McGrath’s first entanglement with the Cordova myth machine started with an anonymous phone call in the night. The speaker, who introduced himself as a one-time Cordova chauffeur, had stories to tell about suspicious after-hours’ drives to playgrounds. The call ended with the grim disclosure, “There’s something he does to the children.”
McGrath, whose own daughter had just been born, began the research that led him to tell a “Nightline” interviewer, “Cordova needs to be terminated with extreme prejudice.” Lickety split, he lost his job with “Insider” magazine, the column at “Time” magazine, $250,000 in savings, and his wife and child. When Cordova’s own daughter, Ashley, turns up dead in a Chinatown crackhouse, an apparent suicide, McGrath is ready for round two with her father.
“At Night All Birds are Black,” the title of one of Cordova’s best films, might apply directly to McGrath’s problem with Cordova research. Like Cordova, he’s obsessed with mystery. The bleak downturn of his own life increasingly inclines McGrath to accept the most noir explanations as true. He’s a man living in a jittery age whose nerves are shot. Once he’s in the “murk,” he can’t draw the line between true and facsimile horror.
McGrath is ready to “slaughter the lamb” (Cordova-speak for leaving behind one’s innocence and meekness). But he also seems to have left behind his discernment.
Almost immediately, McGrath acquires a couple of acolytes: Nora Gallagher, a homeless coat-check girl, and Hopper Cole, a handsome druggie. The three of them take off on a tour of check-points on the Gothic map: mental asylum, occult underworld, haunted mansion. It’s an entertaining, if exhaustive, search that might have benefited from tighter editing.
Still, Pessl has created worlds within worlds and darknesses within darkness. “Night Film” shows how the media freak show can pad and obscure truth, but Pessl doesn’t intend an expose.
Far from it. She revels in the strange ways stories proliferate.
Finally, McGrath absorbs so many stories, he’d rather not, he says, return to his pre-Cordova self: “I’d swollen beyond ordinary life and could no longer fit back into it.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.