Marisha Pessl's new 600-page thriller Night Film centers on a fictional recluse named Stanislas Cordova, who made films so horrifically, soul-destroyingly evil they were effectively banned in the U.S. When his beautiful young daughter mysteriously dies, an investigative journalist becomes infected with the need to pursue the truth behind this seemingly sinister family.
Night Film, released Monday, includes an accompanying smart-phone app, which at first seems like a desperate effort to make books "relevant." The application is called "the Night Film Decoder." The Decoder can be used to scan the page whenever the graffiti tag signifying Cordova's cult fan base appears. The Decoder then reveals extra features—faux news clips, mocked-up movie posters, and trailers for nonexistent films—called Easter eggs, that act as secondary sources, establishing a reality eternal to the physical text.
They're all awfully acted and designed. A doctor recounting a patient's escape emphasizes words like "confessed" with a Lifetime network flourish. The movie posters boast all the awfulness of 70s cult horror posters, but none of the intriguing weirdness. The one interesting "extra" is a very De-Palma's-Body-Double-ish trailer for Cordova's Lovechild. (Unsurprisingly, Night Film was optioned months before the book came out.)
This interactive app distracts from the written story, and it's not the only element of Night Film that does so. There are photographs of the main characters scattered throughout. "Found footage"—security camera films and man-on-the-street interviews of people waxing about the fictional filmmaker—has been posted to the book's website. It's littered throughout with mocked-up clips from Rolling Stone, Time, Vulture, and Vanity Fair.
This concerted and overwhelming effort to make the Cordova world "realistic" is depressingly evocative of watching a movie made of your favorite book. One of the great satisfactions of reading is the movement between the arbitrary, non-representative symbols on the page and the fleshed-out understanding a reader carries in her head: How each character sounds, what the settings look like, the palpability of interactions. The extras Night Film is eagerly presents limits the reader's abilities and bounds her imaginative space.
Consequently the book is at its best when it emulates a great psychological thriller, where the protagonist's fear is more powerful and scary than the actual threat. The most terrifying villain is the one you don't see, all shadows. Here is one of Pessl's fantastic, pulpishly dramatic paragraphs, where she obeys this rule:
"To watch the film once was to be lost in so many graphic, edge-of-your-seat scenes that when it was over, I remembered feeling vaguely astounded that I'd returned to the real world. Something about the film's darkness made me wonder if I would—as if in witnessing such things I was irrevocably breaking myself in (or just breaking myself), arriving at an understanding about humanity so dark, so deep down inside my own soul, I could never go back to the way I was before."
But Pessl is overeager and over-explains. When the investigative journalist uncovers a new clue, there are sentences like "Of course" or "It had all come together." Pessl's labored sentences too often rely on italics to signal weight and importance to the reader. The book's references are like bumps down the stairs—kalunk Hitchcock, kalunk Woodward and Bernstein, kalunk Pauline Kael. There seems to be a distrust of the reader's ability to make connections, so the basic themes are clearly repeated, dozens of times throughout the 600 pages.
But the ideas of Night Film remain compelling. One fascinating part of the book is about "infected stories." As the investigative journalist hunts down this mysterious filmmaker, people warn him that there are some stories that simply un-chaseable. When the writer meets with one of Cordova's former ingenues, she describes it:
"Surely you've noticed that the space around Cordova distorts. The close you get to him, the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical. It's warped space-time, like the mass of a giant sun bending the area surrounding it. You reach out to seize something so close to find it was never actually there."
Pessl might have taken a cue from masters of horror, even one of her own creation, and given her book a little more room to breathe.