News Column

Book review - 'Night Film'

December 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 01--Longtime Asheville resident Marisha Pessl made a splash in 2006 with her debut novel "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." She now follows it up with "Night Film," a long, labyrinthine and mesmerizing salute to the spirit of film noir.

The novel opens with the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, a 24-year-old piano prodigy, who apparently jumped to her death in a seedy Chinatown warehouse.

Ashley was the daughter of the legendary, reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, an Oscar winner who left Hollywood in the 1980s to shoot small, exquisite and intensely disturbing movies on his upstate New York estate. A small band of devoted fans, the Cordovites, wait for rare screenings of his underground "night films" in Paris catacombs or on condemned Big Apple buildings. They're reputed to drive some viewers mad.

Heavy-drinking "investigative journalist" Scott McGrath starts poking into Ashley's death. What drove her to suicide? Or did somebody kill her?

McGrath had tried to poke into Stanislas Cordova's background years ago and, after committing a rookie error that most reporters learn to avoid in Journalism 101, wound up paying the family hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Now, he's driven by forces he can't explain. Revenge? Or obsession with Ashley, a woman he may or may not have encountered on a dark night?

The trail of clues leads to a fortress-like private mental hospital, from which Ashley escaped in the weeks before her death, to Chinatown tattoo parlors, Manhattan luxury hotels and secret S&M lounges on Long Island. Along the way, McGrath acquires a couple of sidekicks, young slackers who have their own obsessions with Ashley (and who aren't telling all they know, at least at first).

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics" featured one of the most unreliable narrators in American literature, a prep school prodigy with almost no insight into human nature. (Its plot also rotated around a mysterious suicide.) The reader has to wonder: How much of the action is going on in McGrath's whiskey-sotted imagination? At one point, he remarks that his life has become like a Stanislas Cordova film. Is it?

Ashley, meanwhile, proves as elusive as her father. Lots of people are willing to talk about her, and him, but their stories often contradict.

On one level, "Night Film" seems like an existential quest for God. McGrath keeps a poster for the French film "Le Samourai," showing Alain Delon as what McGrath describes as "an existential knight."

On another, however, the novel is certainly a salute to film noir and the hardboiled detective novels that spawned it. Characters bear names like Marlowe (as in Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's gumshoe), Nora (as in Nora Charles, the rich wife of the detective in Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man") or Hopper (as in Edward Hopper, painter of the uber-noir image "Nighthawks").

McGrath himself seems to narrate in a slightly updated version of Marlowe's hardboiled lingo: ("She was about 5-foot-7 and scrawny as a question mark, with pale blonde hair in a French twist -- curls around her face channeling alfalfa.")

The plot, such as it is, is as convoluted as Chandler's "The Big Sleep," in which we never do find out who killed Dutch Regan. As Stanislas Cordova might say, though, the point is not the end but the journey, and Pessl takes us on one long, strange and often enthralling trip.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

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