Marisha Pessl’s Stirring Second Act

September 4, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 19 5 min read

coverLike Rachel Kushner earlier this year, Marisha Pessl faced a nightmare known to only the luckiest novelists. Pessl’s debut, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a smash critical and popular success that fetched a six-figure advance, and now she needed to produce a follow-up that somehow topped it. Like Kushner before her, Pessl resisted the temptation to stick with a winning formula; instead she used a broad canvas to produce a novel that is in every way bigger, more ambitious, and more satisfying than her splashy debut.

Pessl’s new novel is called Night Film. People who require categories for their fiction should probably shelve it in the “literary thriller” section, though a genre label is as pointless as a plot summary for a novel as ectoplasmic and slippery as this one. On its base level, Night Film is an exoneration quest by Scott McGrath, the book’s narrator, a disgraced investigative journalist who once tried to penetrate the shell of a reclusive filmmaker named Stanislav Cordova — only to get sued by Cordova and lose everything, including job, wife, daughter, and a fair chunk of his life’s savings and self-esteem. Cordova’s disturbing films, which give the novel its title, have developed a cult following that is literally underground: the movies are so shocking that they’re shown only at secret screenings in tunnels under cities. McGrath describes Cordova as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world…He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.”

When Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, dies of an apparent suicide in a shabby warehouse in downtown Manhattan, McGrath feels the old tug: “I could feel it starting again — the dark undertow toward Cordova. Forget my fury toward him, which still simmered — this was a chance for absolution. If I went for him again and proved he was a predator — what I’d believed in my gut — all I’d lost might come back.”

coverMcGrath enlists two young assistants for his investigation — Hopper Cole, a scruffy drug dealer and one-time boyfriend of Ashley’s, and Nora Halliday, a coat check girl/actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. So, on the face of it, we have a good old-fashioned journalistic investigation. That’s like saying Moby-Dick was a fish story.

What sets Night Film apart is that the telling of the story — the quest for an elusive truth — becomes the story. It’s a deft act of authorial legerdemain that could have backfired, but in Pessl’s hands the story whips along even as it becomes increasingly unclear what the story is, or where it’s heading. As the investigation unfolds, we meet a string of Cordova’s assistants, neighbors, actors, and ex-wives, as well as security guards, tattoo artists, hotel maids, and clerks, shopkeepers, landladies, anyone who had contact with the family. There are intimations of black magic, secret rituals, child sacrifice. The more McGrath and his cohorts learn about Ashley’s life, the less certain they are about the circumstances of her death. It doesn’t help that her invisible father appears to be pulling strings to thwart their investigation.

Pessl embroiders her prose with a grab bag of visual effects that attempt to give the novel documentary heft, including police reports, typed transcripts of telephone calls, photographs, newspaper clippings, text messages, e-mails, online news articles, psychiatric evaluations, and postings from a highly secretive fan website known as The Blackboards. For me, these visuals feel gimmicky and rote, more meta-smoke than actual fire.

covercovercoverBut Pessl’s writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published. That novel, the story of a precocious teenage girl and her peripatetic professor dad, had a hyperventilated prose style that struck me as too cute by at least half. At 600 pages, it was also way too long. The book’s privileged teenagers, known as the Bluebloods, exuded none of the anomie of the young things in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, none of the darkness of Donna Tartt’s undergrads in The Secret History. Now Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance. Her writing is frequently deft and insightful. Here’s a bombastic Cordova scholar: “There were two things Beckman truly loathed in life: sitting in the first three rows of a movie theater and the Catholic Church.” And here’s a mousy piano salesman: “You could spot these Mahler-loving men within a ten-block radius of Carnegie Hall. They tended to wear earth tones, have on DVD all of public television’s Great Performances series, live alone in apartments on the Upper West Side, and have potted plants they spoke to daily.”

Marlowe Hughes, a faded actress, delivers a delicious evisceration of McGrath and his two assistants when they show up to interview her, beginning with Hopper:

“This must be Tarzan, Greystoke, Lord of the Apes. You’re missing a grunt and a club. Can’t wait to see you in your loincloth. Now, who else do we have here?” Enunciating this acidly, she leaned forward to survey Nora. “A chorus girl. You won’t be able to fuck your way to the middle, Debbie. And you.” She turned to me. “A wannabe Warren, straight from Reds. Every one of you, the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless. You people demand to know about Cordova?” She scoffed dramatically, though it sounded like a handful of pebbles rasping in her throat. “And so fleas look up at the sky and wonder why stars.”

As good as such passages are, the writing is not flawless. Pessl has a lazy way with adverbs. People sweat “profusely,” winds howl “punitively,” matches blow out “abruptly,” hair is cropped “hastily.” After a while I found myself wishing Pessl had read Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writing, including Rule #3: Avoid adverbs. Her heavy use of italics is also unsettling, especially in the trite koans sprinkled throughout the text: Within every elaborate lie, a kernel of truth…Astonishing how quickly money jogged a man’s memory… Everyone smiles for a photograph… Even worse are passages like this dubious bit of social analysis:

In the age of the Internet, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano you can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for your own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.

At first I took such italics as a form of shorthand, a clumsy way of telegraphing meaning. But by the end of the book I had come to see the italics as an effective way of revealing McGrath as a relentless pile-driver, pounding away at his quest for the truth. The italics contribute to McGrath’s portrayal as a driven and annoying character. Which is to say he’s just like most journalists.

coverTo return to the comparison with Rachel Kushner, I would argue that Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was an even tougher act to follow than Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Telex was a first novel that didn’t behave like one. It had nothing to do with its young creator’s erudition or deft wordplay; it had everything to do with history, politics, and social hierarchies in the lost world of an American enclave in pre-Castro Cuba. There was nothing solipsistic about it. Unlike Special Topics, it felt like the work of a fully formed talent.

But that’s not to diminish Pessl’s achievement in Night Film. For me, the book’s finest passage is when the trio penetrates Cordova’s remote estate, The Peak, and then get separated. Chased by dogs and guards, McGrath eludes them by submerging himself in a muck-filled swimming pool, hiding in a greenhouse full of hallucinogenic plants, and wandering through Cordova’s elaborate soundstage. The episode plays out like an extended drug trip — McGrath believes he has become part of a Cordova film — and it leaves him shaken and baffled.

That, to Pessl’s credit, is how McGrath — and the reader — wind up at the end of the book. The mystery is not tied up with a tidy bow, the big questions remain unanswered. But when McGrath finally comes face-to-face with his prey, he has the good sense to be willing to shut up, for once, and listen to Cordova’s version of the truth. It’s the smartest move he makes.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. I can’t really understand what’s the all hype about. I’ve read it in a day, and it’s just generic mystery/thriller to me.

  2. “As good as these passages are, the writing is not flawless.”
    I don’t understand what makes these passages “good.”
    “Enunciating this acidly–” “the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless–” In fact, I’m not sure that these phrases mean anything. And the rest of the quoted passages seem to rest on cliches.
    I’m willing to accept that this might be a fun read, an enjoyable book, or an interesting story, but the prose itself seems distractingly cluttered and second-hand.

  3. Special Topics belongs to that special subset of books in the modern publishing world (The Art of Fielding and Freedom are others) that are so insanely hyped (as necessitated by the huge advances the publisher paid out) that they are somehow able to evade meaningful criticism. Reading these books at a remove of a few years makes it clear how bad they really are. Special Topics is a 600-page plea for the reader to worship its author’s erudition. Judging by the snippets included in this review, Night Film is more of the same. “Enunciating this acidly”? The “farting demeanor of the artfully clueless”? And those are from one of the “good” passages.

  4. I did LOVE this book! (Is there a way to write in italics here in such a comment???) It was witty and entertaining and most of all a neat reflection on storytelling itself.

  5. “I’m willing to accept that this might be a fun read, an enjoyable book, or an interesting story…”

    It’s nothing of these three. It gets rather tedious in last hundred or so pages and even before that there’s a lot that could’ve been shaved off. Enjoyable perhaps – as in ‘lets count how many times one can use italic before it gets mind numbing’. And it’s as remote from interesting story as it gets. I’d been wishing and seriously hoping for some *really* unexpected twist, something fresh, or at least formally innovative (it’s heralded as ‘literary’ after all) if not innovative by way of content, but that unfortunately didn’t happen so I wasted a day that could’ve been spent on some *good* book.

  6. I read this review thinking that I must just be an idiot. Another positive review for a book I thought was “meh” at BEST. It’s a relief to get to the comments and know that I’m not alone.

  7. You’re not alone, drob. The PR machine for this book would have you believe you’re about to read some unholy combination of Borges, Didion, and DeLillo, but it’s just more middlebrow pap wrapped in very expensive paper. The passages quoted in the review are indicative of how overwritten the whole book is. Pessl writes the way she does because that’s how “smart” people sound, right?

  8. Also relieved to see these comments. I was so excited to read this, and so disappointed when I did. The writing is so over the top, with all the italics and overexplaining, and the plot itself isn’t really dark and edgy, just silly. All the witchcraft stuff? And the way they kept finding people who could tell them exactly what they needed to know, in implausible levels of detail? It reminded me of The Da Vinci Code. I was glad to see the NY Times reviews were lukewarm. This is definitely a case of “if the publicist says it’s good enough times, people start to believe it.”

  9. I gave up on “Calamity Physics” fairly early on when I realized how lousy the writing was. This book got only pans in the NY Times (one by Stephen King’s kid). I think it’s a pass, this one. If she has any talent it has yet to be demonstrated. I can’t understand the hype.

  10. Not for the first time, a book by an author who famously received a lot of money and publicity for a (first) novel is widely derided on a website well read by frustrated writers.

    We shouldn’t be jealous of Pessl/Harbach/Franzen, we should be grateful that there still is a hype machine, even if an all-too-rarely used one, for books. Surely then, if such “terrible” books can benefit so greatly from the machinery, we have but to apply ourselves to writing books as terrible as these, and then see the money/plaudits roll in.

    I’ve read Night Film and it is neither especially good nor especially terrible. However its goodness/badness is irrespective of its advance or the length and breadth of the book tour. After all, we want our 5000-press-run magnum opi to be reviewed as though they came from FSG, no? Can we have it both ways?

  11. I don’t understand this. Headline and intro proclaiming major literary greatness and article goes on to show how bad it is. Even the examples of “good” writing read as if taken from any random web site.

    This is not the only recent article I find baffling. So much literary opinion does not make sense. The world has gone mad.

  12. ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. I got all the way through it because I kept waiting for it to turn, for the magic foreshadowed by all the positive reviews to turn up, but then I realized it wasn’t going to happen. The writing was far too precious and full of itself, the characters too distant to make me want to like them or know them.

  13. This book is easily the worst thing I have read all year. I don’t say this out of empty jealousy; I am just bitter for the time I wasted on it. There are not enough inexplicable italics in the world to emphasize how terrible Pessl’s writing is–to say nothing of the predictable plot. The very fact that this review was run cheapens this website and makes me question whether I should bother to continue following The Millions; any site that names trash like Night Film an achievement of any sort is clearly not a fount of thoughtful criticism.

  14. I agree with Marianne Schaeffer, this book is a great read! The characters linger long after their story ends, and an adroit reader recognizes that it is a reflection on storytelling, our relationship with reality, and the need to be fully awake while we live our daily lives.

  15. This is a terrible book. Just finished it. Don’t be fooled, it is Young Adult fiction in sheeps clothing. It’s a waste of 30 dollars. Anyone posting a positive review, unable to discern this is crap written for teenage girls, should never be trusted again.

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