Let me describe the current state of fiction in Newtonian terms.  
Two large bodies are coming into a path of collision, each one
exerting a powerful gravitation pull.  The older sphere is called
'serious literary fiction' and it has long dominated this system.  
But the upstart, known as 'genre fiction'
appears to have gained mass, perhaps
even grown in size.  And, most surprising
of all, it seems to be influencing the course
of its proud partner. Serious literary fiction
has been dragged on to a new path, and
along with it many free-floating talents, who
can’t resist the energy and pull generated
by the world of genre.  

Okay, it’s an extravagant description. But
not inappropriate. The relationship between
literary and genre fiction has changed
during the last two decades. And many
of the most creative and exciting works
of recent years haven't tried to pick between
them, or resolve their conflicting demands, but have delighted
precisely in the creative tension.  Even now, many well-know
lit critics, whether James Wood or Michiko Kakutani, fail to
recognize the importance of this new state of affairs, or if they
do recognize it, hope to wait it out, holding on to the crumbling
edifice of
traditional realism in expectation that the genre
asteroid will pass, and disappear into the far reaches of the
galaxy.  When Wood reviewed Jonathan Lethem's
The Fortress
of Solitude, he wouldn't even mention the magical and fantasy
ingredients in the story, almost as if they were beneath him.  
Kakutani, confronting the insertion of flamboyant sci-fi subplots
in David Foster Wallace's
Infinite Jest, lashed out at the
"arbitrary and self-indulgent" elements in a book that many
(count me in their ranks) believe is one of the finest literary
works of recent memory.  

The mystery genre is not exempt from this process of redefinition
and literary gentrification.  In fact, I have devoted an
entire website
to exploring unconventional and experimental mystery fiction.  But
anyone unfamiliar with the current state of play just might want
to start by reading author Marisha Pessl.  If I can return to my
earlier model of competing cosmic forces, Pessl is best described
as situated
exactly in the mid-point between genre and literary
fiction.  She operates at the precise location where their demands
intersect and cancel each other out.

After reading her first book,
Special Topics in Calamity Physics,
I would have told you that I loved the novel, but I couldn't even
begin to predict which path Pessl would take in future works.  
Would she write smart thrillers and make a bundle of money
off the movie rights?  Or would she veer in the direction of
Umberto
Eco and Vladimir Nabokov, and use genre elements to spice
up complex highbrow stories?  She seemed capable of going
both ways, yet uncommitted to either path.

After reading Pessl’s second novel,
Night Film, I am delighted
(again) by her writing, but still no closer to understanding her
allegiances as a writer.  And I probably enjoy her new work all
the more for her refusal to commit.  For Pessl plays the field like
a Don Juan. At times, while reading
Night Film, I was convinced
that she had taken the plunge as a commercial writer, and was
determined to follow the path of John le Carré, Stephen King
and Tom Clancy.  But just when she had lulled me into thinking
that
Night Film was a plot-driven adventure book, she would take
some unexpected Conradian or Dostoevskian turn.  Maybe this
book isn't really about solving a crime, I speculated.  Perhaps
this isn't a thriller at all, but a novel about redemption….or what-
ever the opposite of redemption might be.  Damnation?
Complicity?  Nihilism?

Like Joseph Conrad, Pessl builds a compelling story around a
character who has apparently created his own Nietzschean
moral code, yet stays in hiding while a puzzled protagonist seeks
him out.  If, as some have suggested, Pessl's first novel turned
the pretext of Nabokov's
Lolita into slick crime fiction, this new
book does the same for
Heart of Darkness.  But it's not clear
whether Pessl's Kurtz, a transgressive film director named
Stanislas Cordova, will ever show up in this novel.   We can
almost hear him calling out "The horror! The horror!" in the
background.  Then again, that might just be an echo of our own
fears and desires. Almost everything that happens in the course
of these pages seems to have Cordova’s fingerprints on it, but
how can we be sure?  The man himself is nowhere to be seen.  
To some extent, he exists only in our imagination.

Cordova operates outside the Hollywood business model,
creating ultra-noir films that are so disturbing they are only
screened at unofficial gatherings of devotees and sold through
a mysterious black market, almost like an illegal drug.  You can't
rent his recent movies from Blockbuster or download them from
Netflix.  You need to find the secret location of a private showing.  
And if the movies are hard to track down, the director is even
more elusive.  He hasn't given an interview in decades, and
though numerous rumors circulate about his whereabouts and
activities, all of the theories are open to question.  Some even
believe Cordova doesn't exist, and that his assistant Inez Gallo
is the visionary behind these films.  

Another missing character haunts
Night Film, namely Cordova's
daughter Ashley.  Early in the novel, she dies, and the evidence
points to suicide.  Yet her spirit haunts the ensuing chapters, and
represents a polar opposite to her father.  If Stanislas Cordova is
a spirit of the dark, his daughter is a creature of the light—indeed,
we are even told that she suffered from a medical condition that
made her fear darkness.  But the evidence is incomplete, our
perspective on the father and daughter is blurry at best, and it is
always possible that our view is warped.  Perhaps the father is
the positive force here, a liberator and visionary whose violations
of propriety are justifiable.  And maybe his daughter has gone
over to the dark side—perhaps literally doing a deal with the
devil.

The intermediary between these two characters missing-in-action
is journalist Scott McGrath.  McGrath is a man in crisis, much of
the crisis due to Cordova.  McGrath, an investigative reporter,
previously ran afoul of Cordova while researching the director's
private life, and was lured into making claims about the movie-
maker's criminal activities which he could not back up with
evidence.  Perhaps he was even set up by Cordova himself.  
McGrath's reputation is now in tatters. But the death of the
director’s daughter has reignited McGrath's interest in his
abandoned investigation.  He wants to find out the truth behind
Ashley's death, and perhaps redeem his reputation by also
uncovering criminal involvement by America’s most secretive
filmmaker.

I should mention here that Pessl relies on multimedia effects to
'enhance' this story.  The text of her novel is broken up with the
sporadic insertion of pages designed to look like websites or
magazine articles.  And additional material, not found on the
printed page, can be accessed through various handheld
devices.  Many readers and reviewers will focus on precisely
this aspect of
Night Film.  But I’m not sure these extras add much
to the book.  Frankly, the idea of downloading an app to enhance
a novel strikes me as more a gimmick than a breakthrough in
narrative fiction.  (Technophobes, do not despair.  You can read
this book in the old-fashioned way, with a bound volume of
printed pages in your hand, and enjoy it just as much as do
the
pixelated people.)

Pessl has constructed the plot of this mystery with enormous care,
and whether you are turning pages of touching screens, the story
will keep you engaged and pleasingly confused.  Almost every
fact and theory is counterbalanced by its opposite, and even as
you approach the book’s final pages, almost every possibility is
still open.  Is there even a crime to solve here?  Or perhaps
there are many crimes, a whole series of dark deeds spanning
decades of nefarious activity.

I'll let you decide, after you’re finished with
Night Film, whether
this is a conventional mystery, an unconventional mystery or
something completely different.  But if you think you understand
director Cordova and his daughter by the end of the book, the
mystery of Marisha Pessl remains unsolved.   Will she continue
to find a way of balancing off genre and highbrow conventions,
a delicate house of cards that seems unsupportable over the
long run?  Or will she commit to one of these camps?  I can't
answer that, at least not yet.  I can only await her next book.  And
I do so with more than a small amount of curiosity and enthusiasm.  



Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. He
is the author of eight books and is currently writing a history of
love songs for Oxford University Press.
Great Books Guide
Home Page
The 100 Best Novels
The Ten Year Reading List
The Alt Reality Nobel Prize
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
To purchase, click on image
Visit our sister sites:

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional or experimental
works of fiction

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published
since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction,
magical realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

Great Books Guide is an
Amazon.com associate


Disclosure:  This web site and its sister
sites may receive promotional copies
of review items and other materials
from publisher, publicists and other
parties.
Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site

Los Angeles Review of Books
American Fiction Notes
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Millions
The Misread City
The Literary Saloon
Reviews and Responses
Night
Film

by Marisha Pessl

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

David Mitchell [click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]