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« In Which It Is Not The Most Beautiful Word In The World »

Night Film: A Review


Night Film
by Marisha Pessl
624 pp.

Witness the novel as a madcap scavenger hunt, a magpie’s nest, a Chinese puzzle box with selected pieces missing, a video game in 3D unfolding in 2D dimension… It is a novel that speaks exuberantly — like a mash-up of Sorkin characters talking at once with great purpose and urgency. And Pessl herself, the author as tripmaster, hovers at its center, a slender figure with candy-hued hair melting softly down her shoulders like an L.A. sunset, the lilting kind that dissolves slowly as Sara Bareilles “Love Story” floats over the final credits. The characters are archetypes for the ages, a masquerade puppet show, a revolving door of doomed or romantic figures that shimmer for a moment — or sometimes, for that moment only, blot out all stars, snuff out all light — and then disappear, leaving only a whiff of something achingly human in their wake. 

And the narrative itself? A cipher, a sewer, a cut & sew spectacle of metaphor and IMDB facts and alternative radio references. The tics and tricks that make the cool kids tick.  In fact, you might have lost your virginity on just this sort of fractal fun-filled quilt. Not unlike Scott McGrath, our hero, our dear, disgraced ace investigative reporter for whom everything is at stake. Everything, including the love, the universe, Perry Street and more.

But, after all this, is it possible to remember what life itself, what narrative experience—which, after all, is nothing if not a scintillating synecdoche for the crystalline container of life itself — was like before you clicked through to that 624th page, one mind-melting sentence at a time?

Well. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”


Let’s start at the beginning, although that’s not where Scott McGrath — a fine man, doomed by his own crack instincts to keep itching a scratch that just won’t crust — would begin, nor where Cordova — the shadowy auteur, “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” — would probably begin either. But we’ll begin there, because the beginning has a way of creeping up on you, like dandruff off that inescapable party guest who spends the whole evening soft-shoeing at your heels.

Everyone has an adverb story; whether they like it or not.

Maybe your roommate used three in a sentence, got an C on her essay, and never used one again. Maybe your boyfriend made you a DIY Valentine’s card full of fervid adverbial expressions, and you never talked to him again.

Remember what Steven King and Elmore Leonard have to say about the use of adverbs and adjectives? Adverbs, my assNight Film asks you to ponder the question: what it is like to be sucked you into a vortex of adverbs and similes and adjectives and syntactical constructions so twisted and tortured as to resemble Duchamp’s staircase no. 2?

There are lessons here. There are traps, which Pessl, our nimble tripmaster, has left visible for our own contemplation and, perhaps — if we can stare long enough without the light — even our eventual education.

Oh yes… Yes! (“The most beautiful word in the world.”) This is what it is really like to step into the darkness, to dive deep into a churning southern sea where “no mermaids sing,” where ye olde rules of good writing are just murky runes, spindrift on the wind, Navajo sand paintings drifting on a salty sea…

Clearly, your humble reviewer should have held off her fourth Scotch.

ms. pesslIt’s possible that Pessl considered presenting the book with no narrative at all, that, instead, she had the brilliant light-bulb-flash of the idea to tell the story as merely a mixed media collection of clippings from sources as varied as newspaper obituaries, blog posts, twitter feeds, text message exchanges, online messages boards — a veritable potpourri of materials as rich and varied as the detritus of modern life itself. It would be up the reader to the string the story together based on the clues contained between the twin wings of Random House pasteboard.  One can imagine Pessl’s conversation with her agent, the legendary Binky Urban.
Transcript of Phone Conversation –
Author Marisha Pessl
Agent Amanda “Binky” Urban
May 11, 2011. 11: 06 - 11: 11 P.M.

There is a long silence. Her voice is older, a little I’ll-take-Manhattan-grande-dame, with an undertow of New Jersey.

BU:     You know the book is dying.

Agent “Binky” is sighing strangely, apparently having regrets about this conversation.

BU:     Do you remember that I rejected you about 90 times before you were declared a wunderkind by the New York literati?

MP:     Yes.

BU:     There was nothing I could say. They sat, they read, they highlighted. They found you clever. The Times put your first book on their list of best books of 2006. You remember this? Or am I repeating things that you ought to already know?

MP:     Please refresh my memory, Binky. You know how I love it when you explain this inscrutable industry to me. You always reveal new layers, unspool underpasses to new dimensions.

BU:     James Wood thought he had vanquished hysterical lyricism to its lair with his review of White Teeth in the New Republic. He thought he had bearded the dragon and restored the old order of things.

A pause.

BU:     But he never reckoned on you.
MP:     So you liked the antepenultimate, penultimate, ultimate endings that I sent you?
BU:     They were a signal to me to break out of my lockjaw, real or imagined. Marisha—
MP:     That’s thrilling, Binky! That’s exactly the reaction I wanted! Listen, I want to run an idea by you.
BU:     What kind of idea? What, like a real estate investment idea or a narrative idea?
     Binky, what you said before is so true. The book is dead. There’s a revolution happening. It’s spot on. So here’s what we do. We give’em the Pessl special.
BU:     The Pessl special?
     The Pessl special is like a one-two punch.
BU:     Marisha?
MP:     What?
BU:     There’s something you do to metaphor.
MP:     Oh…

I wait for her to elaborate, but there is only silence.

MP:     Thanks, Binky. You don’t know how much that means to me. Now what did you want to talk to me about.
BU:     Stay the course.

The line goes dead.


Let us marvel at Pessl’s knowledge of pop culture; her love affair with noir tropes; her fondness for pastiche and palimpsest and parataxis; her lusty way with comma, italic, em dash, and (oh, that old favorite), the ellipsis … It’s a stormy orgy with which she gifts us. We sink, we sail, we swim into the darkness.

And, “just when you think you've hit rock bottom, you realize you're on another trapdoor.”

Then finally, with a hiss and a plash and a mermaid moan, the tripmaster finally brings this party back to the harbor, you are left with the sense of something unrequited. All goes black, and you are alone with the noise, the fierce and frantic static which you now realize — perhaps for the very first time — is only absence. Only nothingness. Only tricks that mask the blinding emptiness. 

And Binky Urban's quiet breathing. Nothing more.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Lorrie Moore.


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