In McGrath’s quest to find out what really happened to Ashley, Pessl contrives to hook him up with a pair of young sidekicks—Hopper, a plucky and raggedly handsome drug dealer of Ashley’s acquaintance, and Nora, an even pluckier young coat-check girl/actor who was the last person to see Ashley alive. Early in the book, we hear tell of strange doings up at the old Cordova place, up to and including tales of actual devilry. (True to Gothic villain form, Cordova sequesters himself away in a vast and high-walled rural estate out in upstate New York, which he seems never to leave and where the back half of his filmography was all shot and edited.) A hell of a lot of stuff gets thrown at the reader very quickly: There’s an underground hard-core S&M nightclub, an insane asylum, a villainous priest; there are black magic curses, haunted dolls, and even some actual cliff-dangling. The plot is relentlessly, hurtlingly linear and, for much of the book’s excessive length, manages to be no less enjoyable for all its frequent flirtations with preposterousness. (Here, in the casual overlooking of things that a critic frankly has no business overlooking, is where the above-outlined pact with the devil paid off.)
McGrath comes with many of the standard fixtures and fittings of the noir narrator (stoic wit, stubborn determination, questionable instincts of self-preservation, long-suffering ex-wife, taste for the sauce, etc.). He’s a writer of some apparent substance—investigative journalism awards, numerous books, high-impact stories for Esquire and Time—but the rock-hard edifice of his prose has quite a few structural issues. There are whole pages that look as though they were copy edited by a tag team of Thomas Bernhard and Edgar Allan Poe, indiscriminately italicizing anything not nailed to the floor. The writing is, in general, much less flamboyant than that of Pessl’s hugely successful debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but there is still a distracting tendency toward misguided and jumbled metaphors. “As a journalist,” McGrath says early on, “freedom of speech and expression were cornerstones—principles so deeply embedded in America’s bedrock that to surrender even an inch would be our country’s undoing.” But as I’ve said, I decided pretty early on that I was having too good a time with the book to allow this kind of thing to derail my enjoyment, and so there’s a sense in which none of this mattered very much anyway. It’s hard to roll your eyes when they’re glued to the page, is my point.
As Night Film progresses, though, it becomes difficult to know how seriously to take it, because it stops being clear how seriously it’s taking itself. There’s a wildness of incident combined with a perfunctoriness of psychology that ultimately makes it difficult to invest any real emotional capital in the experience of reading it. At times it feels a little like one of those point-and-click adventure video games where getting characters to reveal crucial details is merely a matter of saying the right thing to them, or handing them the right object; McGrath’s investigation never hits a dead end, everything progresses neatly from one lead to the next, and people are more or less uniformly obliging in telling him whatever it is he needs to know. The narrative is a straightforward plot delivery device—which it accomplishes nicely for the most part—but too often the characters feel like plot delivery devices too.
There’s a long, enjoyably nightmarish section toward the end that works like a cross between Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and a fairground haunted house attraction. For reasons of the above-mentioned spoiler anxieties, I won’t reveal anything more specific about it, except to say that it’s simultaneously representative of both the book’s obvious weaknesses and its considerable charms. It goes on for much longer than it should, it throws all caution about plausibility to the delirious Gothic winds, and it still manages to be solidly entertaining. Just because you know you’re on a rickety ghost train doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Random House.