Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Into the Oubliette: Marisha Pessl's -Night Film-

An oubliette (the word deriving from the French verb "to forget") is a dungeon, a dark, dank cell with a small trap door that serves as the only way in or out. Marisha Pessl's second novel Night Film strives to become just such a door, an aperture that lures readers deeper and deeper into the oubliette of one man's mind. The novel investigates the dark side of investigative reporter Scott McGrath, a washed-up journalist who is disgraced and jobless after accusing legendary, reclusive, and sinister horror-film director Stanislas Cordova of nefarious activities. Cordova's daughter, who dies in the book's early pages, becomes McGrath's obsession. As the pages turn (faster and faster; Pessl is rather adept at the Dickensian cliffhanger, making it nearly impossible to put the book down until you are finished with it), Cordova and his daughter dance around the edges of the book, just out of our grasp, a Brando-esque romantic villain and his demonically angelic minion.

All in this book is never as it seems. Just as you think you have a handle on things, Pessl pulls the rug out from under you, leaving you standing over yet another rigged trap door. As the novel pulls into sharper focus, McGrath's outline bleeds outward, indelibly marking every detail in the book as something we should hold up to the light and turn ... including Ashley.

Pessl especially excels at blending multiple voices within the book, fabricating newspaper articles, chat sites, blogs, hospital records, police reports, photographs, field notes, the "Black Boards"" (a clandestine site maintained by the Cordovites), and magazine articles that bring Cordova, Ashley, and McGrath to life in a way that straight narration cannot. Part of the book's thrill is sifting through these fabricated artifacts alongside McGrath, searching for clues that he and his band of misfits may have overlooked.

Night Film is at once entrancing and maddening, in the end. It leaves one in the dark, with more questions than answers, and not in a good way. It closes with what I have come to call "the WTF ending" (a masterful critical term if there ever was one, but it pretty much sums up my initial reaction).  Is it great literature? No. Is it worth a few evenings of your time, especially when the cold fingers of late September and early October are winding their way into the earth's skin? Hell yes. The novel's prologue alone is worth the price of admission.

On another note, Stephen King's Doctor Sleep was released today. You know, then, what's on my nightstand. Listen to King discuss this long-awaited follow-up to The Shining here. Quote of the day, from King: "Being scared is like sex. There's nothing like your first time."

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