As a study of a great mythmaker, “Night Film” is an absorbing act of myth-making itself. In one of the novel’s cleverest moves, we don’t meet Cordova directly. Instead, Pessl first presents the “amoral enchanter” through a series of Web pages reproduced from the New York Times, Vulture and Time magazine. Here’s that famous last-known image of the elusive man himself, on a bridge, his face turned away from the camera; here’s a fuzzy shot from his grade school in the South Bronx; here’s a jailhouse photo of the fan who killed a little girl after watching Cordova’s “Wait for Me Here” (1993). These screen shots are all so meticulously tricked out with the tragic and bizarre trappings of pop culture that you’ll start to think, “Oh yeah, I remember his first wife. . . . She drowned, didn’t she?”
Our guide through this shattered house of mirrors is investigative journalist Scott McGrath, and if you can’t trust an investigative journalist, who can you trust? Five years ago, while working on an exposé about the mysterious filmmaker, Scott got a tip from an anonymous source who suggested that Cordova was abusing children on his heavily fortified 300-acre estate. In a disastrous “Nightline” interview, Scott threw down that slanderous accusation and was promptly sued out of his job. His wife left him, taking their little girl with her. He’s got nothing left, except, he whines, “for the vague understanding that the best part of my life was behind me, and the sense of possibility I’d once had so innately as a young man was now gone.”
As the novel opens, Scott is jogging around the reservoir in Central Park at 2 in the morning when he spots a ghostlike young woman in a red coat. Concerned about her welfare, he tries to catch up with her, but she evaporates. A little later, the world learns that Cordova’s only daughter has jumped to her death from a vacant warehouse in Chinatown. Scott was one of the last people to see her alive.
What follows for almost 600 serpentine pages is Scott’s increasingly obsessed, probably dangerous, possibly delusional investigation into what caused Ashley Cordova, the brilliant 24-year-old pianist, to throw her life away. Early in his quest for the truth — and for his own professional absolution — he’s joined by a perky coat-check girl named Nora and a young drifter named Hopper. “These two kids clearly knew a hell of a lot more than they let on,” Scott notes. “But if they were hiding something, I’d learn what it was soon enough.” Although they’ve been warned that “some knowledge, it eats you alive,” this Scooby-Doo team tracks down every clue, from an old stuffed toy to a fragment of bone. Winding through Cordova’s labyrinth of illusion, they lie or break their way into an insane asylum, a bondage club, an occult supply store and other vaguely witchy places in pursuit of answers about a filmmaker who preaches that “to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom.”
Pay attention: Pessl has hidden toxic clues throughout the tall grass of these pages. (There’s an accompanying app, naturally, and film rights have already been sold.) Scott must contend with missing records, missing pictures, missing fingers! What are we to make of that satanic smell coming from Cordova’s mansion? Could the filmmaker’s vampiric personality indicate something more Transylvanian? (Is that why he never comes out during the day?) Were those people really just acting in his horror movies? Their anxiety, their blood, their italics — it all looks so real.
But that’s crazy, isn’t it? How can Scott ever establish the facts about the man who “taught us how our eyes and minds perpetually deceive us — that what we know to be certain never is”?
Part of the dastardly fun of this novel is the way Pessl folds the plots, characters and motifs of Cordova’s films into Scott’s panicked investigation. Beneath its occult fragrance, “Night Film” is a rambling exploration of the way pop culture infects our expectations, our concepts of reality. In the book’s most mind-bending moments, Scott seems to have fallen into the celluloid and become one of Cordova’s iconic victims, scrambling for answers, for escape, for his very life. And the whole time, he’s being pursued by invisible minions and taunted by Cordovite Web fans.
Unfortunately, Scott is much better as an unreliable narrator than as an efficient one. Cordova, the master editor, would have snipped at least 200 pages from this manuscript. (Having reportedly paid $1 million to steal Pessl away from Viking, perhaps Random House wasn’t willing to start tossing parts on the cutting-room floor.) Also, the tone of “Night Film” is erratic, jerking from elegant noir to flabby parody. Scott can be delightfully self-conscious about his role as a Sam Spade wannabe, but at other times, the style sags, and Scott’s corny dialogue with Nora and Hopper sounds like patter recycled from an old episode of “Moonlighting.” And far too many chapters end with cliffhangers hanging no more than a few inches off the ground: “I might be a little off my game, but I wasn’t going home. Not yet.”
Those problems, though, are mostly front-loaded in “Night Film.” By the time you’ve fallen halfway down this rabbit hole, the plot feels like an M.C. Escher nightmare about Edgar Allan Poe. What’s best, some of the folks whom Scott interviews tell such incantatory tales about Cordova’s grotesque antics that you’ll miss your subway stop, let dinner burn and start sleeping with the lights on. Better yet, the biggest surprise in this perpetually surprising novel may be that the answer to the mystery, the infernal truth that Scott pursues so doggedly, is more tender and sad than he could ever have imagined.
But haven’t you always noticed that twist in Cordova’s films?
Charles is deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.