Novel: Night Film

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Night Film: A Novel, by Marisha Pessl

Published by Random House in 2013

Audio edition is 23:09:46; meatspace book is something like 600 pages, with a lot of graphics (news clippings, photos, screenshots); there’s also an app, I guess?

After listening to the audio recording, some quick first impressions:

  • The narrator’s voice definitely sounds more like a journalist than a novelist, which makes some of his attempts at poetic rhetoric more forgivable.
  • Perhaps less forgivably, the other characters have very similar voices. (Verbally, that is; the reader, Jake Weber, does a unique voice for each one.)
  • This is slightly embarrassing when Cordova, in a Rolling Stone interview, says things like “The breath of a woman on my shoulder, the sunrise on a snowy mountain that is pink as a rose, my son.” Really?
  • Even the online commenters all sound alike. Also, their prose tends to be too graceful and coherent to be believable.
  • The main narrator relies heavily on the as though construction. Everything happens as though something else, something far more poetic and mysterious, were happening instead.
  • The mystery plot is my kind of thing, and I’m pretty comfortable on either side of the reality/fantasy divide. But I ended up having a problem with it similar to the one I had with When We Were Orphans. The most fantastic sequence in the middle is long and inconclusive. The story spends a lot of time dwelling on the question of what really happened, only to leave it deliberately unresolved. It feels like trying to have it both ways.
  • When you’re writing about a subject that is impossible to bring to life on the page (like Seymour Glass or the mind-melting film in Infinite Jest or the haunting footage in Pattern Recognition), you have to hold back a lot. You can’t show your Medusa in the flesh. Adult readers (or sophisticated readers, at least) know this. So the suspense isn’t about whether we’ll see the Medusa; it’s about what fragments we’re going to get and how we can fit them together. This book does a pretty good job of concealing and revealing Ashley’s fragments, making them at first interestingly dissonant, then harmonious.
  • The whole dark genius/child prodigy/saintly beauty/diving-deep-into-life-like-a-mermaid stuff is a little cheesy, though. Every Medusa in this book is pushed to such absurd extremes that they’re hard to take seriously. It’s not just that we know we’ll never get a chance to meet Cordova or Ashley; it’s not even that we know how improbable they are; it’s that we sense that the fragments we’re seeing are just collages of clichés.
  • Adding a tag for second-hand characterization and description: the technique of portraying a character (or an experience) via other characters’ reactions.
  • Here’s something that makes me cringe in fiction: witches who talk about magic(k) as though all magical traditions are basically the same. I guess I don’t actually know for a fact that European witchcraft and Haitian voodoo and whatever rituals people practice in the rural U.S. are all different. It’s just something that I would expect to be addressed in the book, and it never is, except in a cursory way (did you know the Christian Satan and the Egyptian Set are the same person?).
  • Joseph Fink called this book “everything House of Leaves wanted and failed to be.” Not convinced, though since I “read” this book in a very different format, the visual inventiveness was lost on me.

After glancing through a hardcover copy:

  • The use of handwriting fonts as stand-ins for actual handwriting bugs me. I would be more okay with this except that the graphics and news items and exact dates seem like an attempt at verisimilitude.
  • Also, to a lesser degree, the use of typewriter fonts for typed-up documents. It doesn’t look quite the same as if you scanned an actual typed page.
  • The images of Ashley bother me. She looks more like a common or garden model than a mysterious beautiful genius saint thing, and isn’t she supposed to be dark-haired?
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