Grand Guignol, Gothic, Questy, Operatic and Charismatic.
The adjectives above could apply equally to the cultish figure this book is about as it could to Marisha Pessl’s stylish, risk-taking, occasionally over-blown book.
Just as she was on the edge of losing me in its last hundred pages, through becoming a bit too fantastical for belief, she did yet another, effortless, audacious, utterly credible, didn’t-see-it-coming volte-face, tipping her book into a direction I hadn’t seen would be there, and leaving me shaking my head in admiring amazement.
Enough with the adjectives; just what is it about, and why is it so fabulously original and worth reading?
The narrator and almost central character, Scott McGrath is an almost washed-up middle-aged man, an investigative journalist with an obsession. His obsession is the reclusive, dark cult, noirish auteur film-maker Stanislas Cordova, whose queasily shocking films, full of investigations into the dark side of the human soul, have become cult classics, banned from mainstream showing. An underground legion of Cordova fans, world-wide, arrange hidden showings of his movies (he has not made a new one for years) using social media and deeply hidden, protected-from-prying-eyes websites which you must know about to even find, let alone get access to.
Rumours escalated about Cordova over the years. He has always eschewed publicity, whilst his films gained notoriety through dark hints and rumours. Some of these are that his films, dealing with death, sex, violence, hidden and shameful desires, were ‘for real’. Many of the actors and crew who worked on Cordova films appeared to have had strange epiphanies as a result of the experience, and have vanished off the radar. Those that are still around refuse to talk about Cordova and the film they worked on.
Viewers of these films also report shocking, changing experiences and well-mangled minds as a result – hence, the banning of those films.
McGrath did attempt to instigate an expose of Cordoba some years previously. The result of this was professional and personal suicide. He became unemployable after an emotional anti-Cordova outburst on TV. His marriage broke apart under the strain of his obsession to expose Cordova. He is resentfully ticking over, convinced he was set-up to fail by Cordova himself.
Then news breaks (this is start of the novel, not a spoiler!) that Cordova’s daughter Ashley, an incredibly gifted classical pianist, has been found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned New York warehouse. The verdict is suicide.
McGrath is not convinced, and begins another Cordova investigation, picking up a couple of unlikely, shadowy sidekicks along the way, a small-time drug dealer and a restaurant coat-check girl, actress wannabe.
What makes this different from any other well-written, imaginative thriller-cum-crime investigation, are the audacious games Pessl plays with her medium, adding to reader enjoyment and justifiable, rather than authorial self-indulgent, mind-mangling reader experience.
These include fanzine web-pages, photographs, police reports, medical records, and pages from the New York Times, including its on-line pages, reporting Ashley Cordova’s death, and an early interview with Cordova from Rolling Stone, before he completely eschewed such practices.
The interactive, this-is-reality experience also steps beyond the book’s pages as, in both Kindle and real book, some pages contain a particularly Cordova-apt symbol. Readers possessing an Apple or Android device can download a free Night Film app, and then, taking a photo of the pages containing the symbol will launch webpages so that the journey continues on-line.
I am sulking, badly, as a woefully discriminated against Blackberry user. Random House, the publishers, have no plans to launch the Night Film app for Blackberry, and my Windows PC and lappy, not to mention the Blackberry, uncompromisingly tell me that the app is not compatible with my devices.
I feel like Scott McGrath, before he found a way into the Cordova secret fan website.
Pessl has been compared to many other writers, in terms of her subject matter and style – predictably, these include the Steig Larsson Millenium trilogy (Pessl a more imaginative literary writer) and Donna Tartt’s Secret History – Tartt is cooler, more cerebral, more intellectual, more reflectively introverted and more disciplined in her writing and imagination I think.
There is something so very joyously lush and unrestrained about Pessl – this is not a ‘magic realism’ novel, but she has the rich, fantastical imagination of particularly the South American Magic Realists.
However, the comparison which most hit home, in literary fashion – though not till the final 50 or so pages of the novel, was that classic, early ‘mess with the head of the narrator AND the reader’ book by John Fowles, The Magus, an example of so-called ‘god-game’ writing. Pessl engages with a variety of this, and I have some similar ‘the reader has been rearranged’ sensations.
However, it is the world of film she seems mostly to inhabit, a wonderful amalgam of Hitchcock, the Blair Witch Project, The Omen, David Lynch, Tarantino, not to mention the suspicion that Polanski and Kubrick might have been partial inspirers of Cordova.
I recommend this highly. I have now bought her first book, and fully intend a re-re-re read of The Magus!