In 2006, Marisha Pessl arrived on the scene fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus, with “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” a showy first novel stuffed with literary references and written in the voice of a smart, bookish 16-year-old, which she had down.
Now, with “Night Film,” she has aimed at something more disquieting: a thick noir narrated by a washed-up reporter on the tail of a filmmaker who may or may not be evil incarnate, a man whose 24-year-old daughter has -- according to the police -- just killed herself.
So much has been written about Pessl herself -- about her beauty, about the fat advance she scored for her first book and the even fatter one (rumored to be around $1 million) for this one, about her marriage to a hedge-fund manager and her subsequent divorce -- that I hesitate to mention her appearance.
Yet I found myself looking back and forth from the text to the author photograph and asking myself, “Can this bright-eyed creature plumb real darkness?” Sometimes looks don’t lie.
“Night Film” is inventive: It includes visual mock-ups of Web pages, police reports, magazine articles, etc. It’s loaded with incident. But even, or perhaps especially, when its subject is black magic, it isn’t chilling.
The hardboiled narrator, Scott McGrath, sounds less like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe than like a Nickelodeon version of them, a man ever on the verge of exclaiming, “Gee whiz!”
And though McGrath claims, in line with the classic private-eye loner, that “I worked solo, always had,” Pessl can’t resist giving him two sidekicks: an adorable young drug dealer who once loved the dead girl and a winsome teenage actress with a pet parakeet. They lock arms as cheerfully as Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road.
Stanislas Cordova, the mysterious director, has become a recluse, and no one will talk about his daughter’s suicide -- until (of course), one by one, they do. They sing like canaries, each new source leading, like clockwork, to another one.
Pessl intends Cordova, an obsessive maker of disturbing films who suggests a cross between Thomas Pynchon and Roman Polanski, as her means to explore human (and possibly supernatural) malignancy.
His motto is “Freak the ferocious out,” which “meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind.”
But Pessl is no Cordova. For that matter, she’s no Stephen King. She’s too even a writer to penetrate the mad, the gruesome and the obscene. (Her description of a freaky sex club wouldn’t embarrass an eighth grader.)
The friends make it through a series of close calls, encountering a gallery of weird characters without ever getting much nearer the promised revelation. Ultimately their quest is just one damn thing after another, each one recounted with the same breathlessness. By the halfway point of this long book, I was worn out.
What Pessl has written isn’t a noir but a gaily colored adventure about three loners at loose ends who discover each other and the value of teamwork. Darkness eludes her.
“Night Film” is published by Random House (599 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include a Lewis Lapham podcast and Zinta Lundborg’s NYC weekend.