Night Film: A Novel
|Genre||Mystery, Thriller, Horror, Noir, Experimental Fiction, Contemporary|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Pages||602 (Hardcover edition)|
Night Film: A Novel is a mystery thriller by Marisha Pessl published by Random House. The novel was in the list of finalists for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award  and was ranked sixth on The New York Times Bestseller’s list in September 2013 following its release in August 2013.
The novel uses screenshots of author created web pages, and has an interactive aspect that involves an app called “Night Film Decoder” that is used to scan certain images used throughout the text and unlock additional text, pdf, video, and audio files that augment the text. However, many of the reviewers who did not like the novel believed that Pessl’s inclusion of the decoder was a significant drawback of the novel.
Ashley Cordova, the daughter of legendary reclusive director Stanislas Cordova, commits suicide. With the belief that Stanislas Cordova was heavily involved in her death, disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath reluctantly teams up with exuberant aspiring actress Nora Halliday and the mysterious and aloof Hopper to determine what really happened. Throughout the investigation the trio interview a variety of people who were closely associated with both Cordova and his daughter, only to discover that the truth of what happened may be beyond natural, scientific explanation.
The novel opens with a quote from Stanislas Cordova, a famous and mysterious film director.
Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out? Do you want to know what is there, or live in the dark delusion that this commercial world insists we remain sealed inside, like blind caterpillars in an eternal cocoon? Will you curl up with your eyes closed and die? Or can you fight your way out of it and fly? -Stanislas Cordova; Rolling Stone, December 29, 1977
The prologue then opens from the point of view of one Scott McGrath- photojournalist and former employee to Insider magazine -, who relates that "everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not". McGrath notes how Cordova, in the modern world where privacy has seemingly perished, is the sole exception to the rule, having found a way (against all possible odds) to remain in the shadows with few credible details known about him. In regards to the Cordova story previously mentioned, Scott's tale begins "for the second time on a rainy October night, when he was just another man running in circles..."; whilst out for a late-evening jog, Scott notices he has been joined by a mysterious young woman in a red coat. Although Scott believes the woman to be little more than a figment of a scotch-addled mind, whilst boarding a train bound for Brooklyn, he finds that the woman has followed him to the train station.
The story then cuts to an online edition of the New York Times, with the headline reporting the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, 24-year-old daughter of Stanislas. The news story recounts that Ashley "was a classical pianist and former child prodigy", having performed at Carnegie Hall for one time at age 12 before disappearing from the musical world two years later. In concern to the suicide, "the Cordova family could not be reached for comment". Included with the entry is a story entitled "The Last Enigma", which recounts the brief (and largely mysterious) life of Stanislas Cordova. What little is known is that Stanislas "was an only child raised in the South Bronx by a single mother", who received poor marks in class for his "sullen behavior". Dropping out of high school, he became a petty criminal and cab driver exclusively for New York prostitutes in the 1960s while spending times writing the script for his first film- Figures Bathed in Light. As his films began to grow in number, Cordova's main themes- the dark underside of society that many ignore, humanity's shameful side and the importance of the night film in question -became very apparent. The only person that Stanislas ever treated as something even close to a friend was one Inez Gallo, Cordova's trusted confidante for 30 long years. Cordova had three wives: Genevra Castagnello (Italian model and heiress to a banking fortune, as well as mother to Stanislas' son, Theodore), Marlowe Hughes (former actress and "legendary beauty") and Astrid Goncourt (French costume designer and mother to Ashley), each of whom either left or died under mysterious circumstances. It was also known that Cordova was the owner of The Peak- "a 300-acre estate located in upstate New York in the remote wilderness of Lows Lake", which has been home to Cordova's film studio and been considered a holy site by the Cordovites- Stanislas' crazed fans/worshipers. Cordova's films became the subject of much controversy, having caused mental breakdowns in test screenings, left people unconscious from sheer terror and inspired a man named Hugh Thistleton to become a murderer. Despite the massive backlash, Cordova's movies continued to be shown to those who desired to see them in "red-band screenings", taking place underground (figuratively and literally) in dark places. Cordova's last public appearance was in 1977, where he noted his favorite image from all of his films was a close-up of a killer's eye, which he described as "sovereign, deadly, perfect" and both the image and the slogan that went with it became commonplace pieces of Cordovite life. In 2006, Scott McGrath attempted to bring Cordova into the light and reveal him as a psychopath; sadly, his attempt found him facing a million-dollar lawsuit for slander from Cordova's lawyers, which later saw McGrath lose his job and family. Three years prior, Cordova was seemingly working on a sixteenth film- Matilde -though what work, if any, happened to it disappeared. The Cordovites "adopted the symbol of the red bird"- a fleeting symbol that appears in each of Cordova's films -in an attempt to get him to return, but he remains silent, while the information that must be known about him is picked over by the Cordovites on the "invisible Internet fan site known as the Blackboards". Cordova's last possible known act was the purchase of a Francis Bacon painting for an eight-figure sum sometime in 2008.
An old obsession
The view shifts to Scott, who finds himself at a cocktail party he never even wanted to come to. As he goes to get another drink, McGrath receives a message from his old attorney, Stu Laughton, who informs him of Ashley's passing. Wishing to avoid any talk on a subject he knows nothing about, Scott leaves for his home (placating an annoyed nanny for his daughter upon arriving late). Almost with some form of happiness, he digs up the files he had on Cordova- most prominently among them being the interview with "John", a man who worked with Cordova, but was later revealed to be a setup to get McGrath humiliated, and a file on Ashley Cordova. After checking in with his daughter, Scott begins the lengthy (and doubtlessly lethal) work of finding out what really happened to Ashley.
He begins by meeting with Detective Sharon Falcone, a member of the Manhattan Police Department. He learns from her that Ashley committed suicide by jumping down an elevator shaft in the Hanging Gardens- "a notorious squatters' hangout", but she did make one final stop some time before her death- the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue, where she left a coat and just simply vanished. Needing a more expert view on the subject, Scott visits an old acquaintance- Wolfgang Beckman: "film scholar, professor, rabid Cordovite and author of six books on cinema". The meeting goes less than well, considering that bad blood runs between the two, but he does help by pointing to Peg Martin, a bit-player who worked in one of Cordova's films.
Before going to see the spot where Ashley perished, Scott stops at one last place- the "Four Seasons" restaurant, where the last person to see Ashley was the coat girl, one Nora Halliday. She proves uncooperative, so Scott leaves for the Hanging Gardens not long after. Several cards of condolence have been left in tribute, but the building is abandoned... at least, until an adolescent arrives (to mourn or to pillage Ashley's corpse is uncertain). Scott chases the boy, fights him and knocks him out. It turns out the lad is a drug dealer (small-time, thankfully) and, to keep tabs on him, Scott takes his phone. Sure enough, the dealer- Hopper Cole -comes for his phone. Going to Hopper's house, it is revealed that he had a connection with Ashley- both went to a therapy camp of the most shameful kind. The potential of death always hung overhead, and the counselors were maniacs. During the trip, one boy- Orlando -ends up with a pill of ecstasy and the chief counselor loses it. During a mass investigation, Ashley takes the fall and is punished severely- she would sleep alone and clean up all the other campers' messes. Eventually, he relented... and ended up with a snake in his sleeping bag as payback. Ashley was taken back after the whole ordeal was over, and (until a peculiar parcel of a stuffed monkey arrived) it was the last that Hopper ever heard from Ashley. The two enter an uneasy partnership and (upon meeting with Nora from before) quickly forge a team. Their intent- to discover the truth behind Ashley's death and, once the ordeal is over, split the results of their work three equal ways.
The hunt begins
The trio begin their search into Ashley's peculiar passing at Briarwood Hall Hospital. Certainly, something was wrong with Ashley if she had been sent there- the staff is always in arms' reach of the majority of the patients there, the whole place is fenced in with a thirty-foot, electrified fence and video surveillance is going non-stop. Using a fake story about wanting to assign a patient to the hospital, Scott learns that the incident of Ashley's escape has been covered up. What does get discovered is that Ashley (who was a Code Silver patient- the highest possible patient rating, with endless supervision) left with an unknown male 10 days before her death. Whilst being forced to leave, one nurse directs Scott and company to Morgan Devold- the unknown male from before.
He tells the story of how he ended up entangled with Ashley and how it cost him his job. It all started on an evening shift- Morgan was goofing off, reading magazines, when he notices Ashley has somehow slipped into a music room and was playing with the skill of a veritable virtuoso. Once she finishes, she literally smiles at him through the video feed and rushes back to her room- made all the easier due to her seemingly omnipotent knowledge concerning the affair of her watchers. Morgan returns every night afterwards, watching Ashley's performances for eight nights before she leaves something crumpled on the piano she played- a note begging for help. Over the course of three weeks, he planned an escape for the two of them to slip off to New York City... but it never came to be. She used him, slipped on board the train and left without a word. Morgan was fired shortly after. Thankfully, the trio get a new clue- before cutting her losses and running away, Ashley stopped at the Waldorf Towers- a luxurious hotel in New York that Scott had a brief affair with a married woman for a time after his divorce. Through talks with the staff, Scott and his colleagues learn that Ashley caused a disruption, with a cleaning lady refusing to clean Ashley's room and referring to her as a devil.
Reviews and criticism
In his review of the novel titled “Underground Idol: Night Film: A Novel by Marisha Pessl” Joe Hill writes, “No one can accuse Marisha Pessl of unfamiliarity with the tools of the modern thriller. With pages of faked-up old photos, invented Web sites and satellite maps, “Night Film” — Pessl’s second novel, following ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ (2006) — asserts itself as a multimedia presentation more than an old-fashioned book.”. Hill notes that despite some of the clunky lines and oddly italicized sentences, the novel “has been precision-engineered to be read at high velocity, and its energy would be the envy of any summer blockbuster.”
Meg Wolitzer’s claims in her review, “Brainy, Fat And Full Of Ideas: 'Night Film' Is A Good-Natured Thriller”, that “In the novel’s best moments, reading this book is like sitting in a movie theater in wraparound darkness, feeling a deep chill that's part air conditioning, part anticipation.”  Wolitzer does note that while Pessl’s environments and scenes are beautifully rendered in the text, her characters fall flat. However, despite the plot’s plainness, and the characters’ lack of personalities, Wolitzer believes that “Marisha Pessl had an extremely cool and intricate idea for a novel, and ultimately it works. I was totally happy to sit in the darkness until the very last page, and I didn't move a muscle until the lights came up.” Despite the praise that critics gave Pessl, some critics felt that she did not successfully write a compelling mystery novel. Janet Maslin wrote in her review titled “This Time the Topic Is Movies” that in addition to purple prose, “credibility problems plague Ms. Pessl from the moment she first toots the Cordova horn. His films sound terrible, at least as they are described here. . . His last known interview, granted to Rolling Stone in 1977, is arrogant and pompous even for that magazine and time.” Maslin also does not believe that the interactive aspects of the novel are effective, and she views them as “a badly executed, distracting gimmick” that the audience is not guaranteed to want or enjoy.
In her article “The Novelist Goes to the Movies: Marisha Pessl's "Night Film", Maggie Doherty claims that Night Film: A Novel is “inexpertly plotted and peppered with screenshots, Night Film offers not an absorbing reading experience but an alienating one.” She also believes that “Night Film is a novel for the digital age, but if this is the kind of fiction our age produces, then these are dark times indeed,” and she links Night Film: A Novel to the death of the novel.
- "2013 Shirley Jackson Awards Winners". Shirley Jackson Awards. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
- "Best Sellers: Hardcover Fiction". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
- Hill, Joe (August 16, 2013). "Underground Idol 'Night Film' by Marisha Pessl". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
- Wolitzer, Meg (August 22, 2013). "Brainy, Fat And Full Of Ideas: 'Night Film' Is A Good-Natured Thriller". NPR Books. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
- Maslin, Janet (August 15, 2013). "This Time the Topic Is Movies 'Night Film' Is Marisha Pessl's New Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
- Doherty, Maggie (October 4, 2013). "The Novelist Goes to the Movies: Marisha Pessl's "Night Film"". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved November 17, 2014.