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Night Film

Marisha Pessl's latest novel is a cinephile murder mystery, rich with thoroughly modern details.

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Pessl more or less abandons the visual aids about halfway through the narrative, but she sustains the atmosphere of ceaseless replication in other ways. Everything here, in fact, is a hologram, a spectral presence that purposefully suggests a thousand other things. (Not for nothing is Pessl's favorite figure of speech the simile, comparing like with like: the simile for her is as the footnote was for David Foster Wallace, a signature and a manifesto.) 

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Cordova recalls a bit of Kubrick and Polanski here, a touch of David Cronenberg and Karl Atticus there. His creepy sprawling estate, called The Peak, brings to mind "The Shining" and Mark Z. Danielewski's alt-novel "House of Leaves." There's a nefarious priest straight out of "The Exorcist," sophisticated Manhattan witches like those in "Rosemary's Baby," a high-end secret sex club like the one in "Eyes Wide Shut," ash circles and weird piles of twigs borrowed from "The Blair Witch Project," and on and on. Ominous totems are everywhere. Ashley's red coat, "that blood red stitch in the night,"  tries to conjure the same fear as the red plastic raincoat in "Don't Look Now," while other portents include a compass, a locked box, a disfigured baby doll, a man's herringbone jacket, a child's bloody shirt.

"Night Film," as these lists suggest, is all MacGuffins and no Jimmy Stewart. Scott McGrath isn't a credible enough tour guide through this world: he's slick and flat as a pop-up ad, and other key figures in the book sound too much like him. We follow him down a lot of random roads both urban and rural, some of them imaginatively atmospheric, but none of them particularly scary or thrilling. For a story about the titillations of horror, this has virtually none. It's too episodic to maintain any suspense, and there is, even in the secret sex club, zero sex.

But I don't believe that Pessl set out to satisfy the conventions of a traditional novel, and so to argue the effectiveness here of character or plot is to miss the point of the book. I think Pessl is setting up a mirror to show us our distracted, entertainment-drunk culture, where there's a precedent for every pop-culture reference, an information link for every personality, an Echo for every Narcissus. She's blithely unconcerned, as she was in her first novel, with any suggestion of depth. Speed and volume are her articles of faith, as they must be ours.

"Life was a freight train barreling toward just one stop, our loved ones streaking past our windows in blurs of color and light," McGrath intones at the novel's end, with a timeless cinematic flourish. "There was no holding on to any of it, and no slowing it down."

Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.


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