Tag: good-looking characters

Novel: Night Film

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?

Short story: “The End of a Career”

“The End of a Career,” by Jean Stafford

Appeared in the January 21st, 1956 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), and in Stafford’s collections

My guess is 4,000 words

This story reminds me of Patricia Highsmith‘s Little Tales of Misogyny, depicting as it does a character whose sole reason for living is to be a beautiful woman—or to put it more precisely, a decorative woman. But Stafford is never over the top the way Highsmith can be; she never makes her judgments too obvious, never gets derailed by bitterness. The story portrays Angelica with an objectivity that’s both funny (The Faerie Queene!) and genuinely sad.

Angelica is explicitly described as an artist. She doesn’t cultivate her beauty for social status, money, a husband, or a lover; she cultivates it for its own sake and quite uselessly. It seems to be an underlying theme here that this is part of the reason her pursuit comes to a dead end. Her doctor hints that if she had only managed to be beautiful for someone, to love and be loved instead of pursuing a perfectionist obsession, she might have found a way out of the trap. As with “Solid Objects,” it’s interesting to compare the fictional artist with the author herself, who writes for an audience and therefore perhaps has more hope of success.

On a reread, the remarks Angelica’s aunt makes at the funeral are very disturbing. It’s remarks like these that made Angelica the stunted, miserable, doomed person she was, and the aunt knows it. But who can blame her? What other tribute can be paid to someone so monomaniacal and so hollow?

Edited to add: It does seem a little ridiculous comparing Stafford to Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson (the other comparison I tend to make). Stafford apparently stayed on the more literary side of things; her stories never seem to try to unsettle you. But all three of them have a similar attraction for me, a sense of the strangeness of everyday life.