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Night Film: A Novel Paperback – July 1, 2014
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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Forget the hype: this story has NO forward momentum. A journalist said something bad about a Kubrick-like filmmaker after a vague tip and somehow his life and career fell apart. If this feels vague, it's even moreso after you've read the explanation of how it came to be. Then, when the filmmaker's daughter is found dead, apparently of a suicide, he decides to investigate and...Nothing.
To me, Pessl's book was revelatory in showing how some people are innately able to tell a story and some just don't understand the craft. Right off the bat, we should be given a major reason to think that this wasn't just a suicide, something the journalist is privy to but the rest of the world seems to be ignoring. A REASON TO BE INVESTIGATING. Instead, we just get vague possibilities arise and a lot of backstory. And we're not sure why we care. A woman died. Happens all the time in New York. He saw her a few weeks prior to her death. OK, so what? She has a weird family. Don't we all? Why care to follow up??!
Randomly, the journalist teams up with a coat check at the Four Seasons and a random drugged out guy on the scene of the crime, and suddenly, it's like they're the Boxcar Children - a rag tag group of investigators who are going to get to the bottom of things. Lines of dialog are totally interchangeable - anyone could be speaking any of the conversation bits, like "Where should we go?" "We should go here." "OK, and I'll check out this." Despite some bits about their past, their characters are the thinnest of wisps.
As all this is going on, Pessl's terrible prose starts to gnaw away at you like...God, I wish I was clever enough to come up with some of her awful comparisons. "The rain was beating against the window like an army trying to come in," is one that I seem to recall. There are more. They're cringe-inducing. I cannot believe her editor didn't circle them all and write "try harder" during the writing process.
Pessl also cribs the Dan Brown motif of ending a chapter with a cliff hanger sentence, only to follow it up immediately after. Except, she sucks at it. In a Dan Brown world, this would be "Susan turned - and screamed." Then: "The floor was gone - it had been removed by a booby trap" or some such silly thing. You know, there's a reason why Susan screamed, and you're rewarded with a surprise.
But Pessl doesn't understand how to use it. CONSTANT chapters end with something like "Scott turned - and recoiled in horror." Then: "A tub of black putrid water was before him." Not a body, not a monster, a tub of gross water. NOT A CLIFFHANGER MOMENT. This happens over and over and over and over again.
And what is with the the italics?!??!?! I recall Elaine from Seinfeld having a problem with exclamation marks; if she saw all the italics in this book, she'd blow her brains out.
But worst of all is the exposition. About 3/4ths of the way through, the book has to start explaining the vague boring mysteries it has created, and then the pages and pages and pages of exposition happen. The Boxcar Children gather in a room with Someone Who Has The Answers, and then that person starts talking for pages and pages and pages and pages, sort of explaining what's going on.
And then the false endings come on, each worse than the next. There came a point where I saw there were still about 187 pages left to go, and I just couldn't figure out WHY. WHY. Why am I 400 pages in, and I still don't get what could possibly happen on the next 187...or care.
It's really that bad.
This is the creepiest book I've read since 1983's "Pet Sematery" by Stephen King. It's consistently unsettling and the tension is built in a way that inspires a constant sense of encroaching dread. It actually gave me bad dreams.
Author Marisha Pessl takes on a lot of tasks, and for the book to succeed she has to pull off most or all of them.
She makes her main character a newspaper reporter. His behavior and how he asks questions and deals with people is believable and consistent. He doesn't act like a cop, for example.
Pessl gives the book a multimedia component, with fake newspaper and magazine stories and screenshots of webpages. This could easily be a gimmick that seems precious and fake - but again, it works very well. The stories read like a real magazine story would - not the fake "stories" that are common in fiction when a character is reading a newspaper.
More than that, the multimedia aspect is not gimmicky in the sense that she only uses it a few times. It's a vital aspect to the book's presentation, and is treated as such - it's top-rate presentation and keeps the reader guessing. Her presentation of this reclusive Hollywood director becomes much more believable thanks to these multimedia additions (multimedia only on the printed page, of course).
I'm usually not a fan of books that break 400 pages. I feel like they're overlong and overwritten. This is the rare case - at about 600 pages - where I never felt the length. Instead, I was always engaged and just when one plot point was solved, she changed course and made sure I was always on my toes.
The plotting and writing are very well-constructed. Unlike a 600-page epic where something is foreshadowed on page 50, but is forgotten by page 450, Pessl does a great job of including a couple sentences to remind the reader about the context - so I was rarely like "wait, who is this again?" She kept control of the narrative and didn't let all the moving parts get away from her. If you're going to write 600 pages, it needs to have an epic scope, and all the places and locations and twists and turns fill that role.
It's not perfect, of course. There are a few times where she relies on coincidence and lucky breaks, but not so often that it feels lazy. For the most part, I could accept the plot twists. Do a few things go a little too far? Probably, but it builds the atmosphere. And, she does go too far with italics; by using them so much, they lose their emphasis. In fact, the italics often seem to emphasize the wrong word and it doesn't feel right, so that's a second problem.
But those problems are all minor. To my surprise, she pulled off the ending. In a thriller, it's so easy (and so common) for the ending to lack a satisfying punch - but she pulls it off. I'm not saying it's perfect, and I can see why some people will find it sort of meh, but I thought it worked well with the world she'd set up. It made sense, and that's probably the best an ending can hope for.
Like I said, the book is built on dread, more than terror. Especially the first 300 pages, which sets everything up, this dread pervades everything.
This was a winner - a rare thriller that really grabbed me by the throat and still left me satisfied at the end, without any cheats or parlor tricks to steal fake emotion. She earned what I felt.
Most recent customer reviews
After spending a whole day peeling back the Night Film tentacles from around my head, I can gratefully report that I’m almost back to my normal...Read more