I know better than to give in to literary hype, but I also know better than to dismiss hyped books. If it sounds like my kind of thing, I’ll give it a try, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl sounded like my kind of thing. Set against a backdrop of creepy films and filled with excerpts of “real life” online news stories and hard-copy police reports and other documents, this tale of a reclusive filmmaker, his recently deceased daughter, and the disgraced journalist who gets drawn into the story sounds like exactly my kind of thing.
But then there’s the writing. Almost every review I’ve seen, positive or negative, complained about the writing–or at the very least about Pessl’s habit of sprinkling italics seemingly randomly throughout the narrative so that we would know what’s important or hear the emphasis in the narrator’s voice. But that’s not the only problem. The narrator, journalist Scott McGrath, also peppers his writing with dumb metaphors and belabored descriptions.
Here are a few examples, all from the first 50 pages.
[On Scott's daughter's nanny] Her name was Jeannie, but no sane man would ever dream of her.
[On Scott's daughter] She seemed to already know what took me forty-three years to figure out, that even though adults were tall, what we knew about anything, including ourselves, was small. The jig had been up since she was about three. And like an innocent convict who’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Sam was resigned to patiently serve out her sentence (childhood) with her inept wardens (Cynthia and me) until she was on parole.
[During a meeting with a police source] Sharon continued to watch me—or perhaps the right word was investigate, because her brown eyes were slowly moving over my face, probably in the same methodical grid pattern she used with a widespread search party.
[On a film professor antagonist] As livid as he was, it was impossible for Beckman to be physically intimidating. He was wearing gray dress slacks too short in the leg and round gold eyeglasses, behind which his small, kind eyes blinked like a chipmunk’s. He also had a gung-ho hairline. It couldn’t wait to get started, beginning an overeager two inches above his eyebrows. His right cheek was badly swollen as if stuffed with cotton balls.
In a generous moment, I thought Pessl was going for a hard-boiled noir-ish style, and maybe she was, but it doesn’t work. Not for this character in this time and place. Shouldn’t a journalist in the internet era be all about lean prose? Usually, I don’t expect that much of the prose in crime fiction. If I don’t notice it (and I usually don’t), I’m happy. If I notice that it’s great, I’m thrilled. If I notice that it’s terrible, it’s bad news because that draws me out of the story, and when the story is the best thing about a book, I need to be kept inside it.
Many readers have been fascinated by the facsimiles of actual documents that Pessl uses throughout the book. I love this kind of thing, so I was pretty excited about that, but it’s not that innovative. Lots of books include news stories that comment on and build the plot. The main distinction here is that Pessl uses so many of them and that they’re not just run in the text but presented as screen shots or copies of the actual documents. It makes the fictional filmmaker, his family, and his fans feel like part of the real world because we see the “real-world” response to them. But it doesn’t do enough to make up for the ridiculousness of the main character’s voice.
The first 50 pages of this book kept reminding me of other things I liked better. And the underground film scene made me think of Laurie King’s deliciously dark The Bones of Paris. The prologue feels like a tribute to the film Don’t Look Know, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier. I wondered why I wasn’t reading Daphne du Maurier. If I’m thinking I’d rather be reading something else as I roll my eyes at the book in my hand, it’s time to put that book down.
It’s unusual for me to write about books I don’t finish these days. And it’s highly unusual for me to write about books that I barely start. But I’ve seen so much praise for this book, often from people whose opinion I respect and tend to agree with. With a little digging, I was able to come up with a handful of negative reviews, but only a handful, and most of those focused on the plot and its (lack of) resolution. I got to wondering if I’m alone in my extreme irritation with the writing. Lots of reviews mentioned not loving the writing, but most seemed to overlook it because the plot was so entertaining. Are there others out there who started and couldn’t deal with the writing and gave up? Is it just me? How bad does bad writing have to be before it’s not worth the bother? When it comes to that, how do you define bad writing? I thought this was pretty bad, but clearly not everyone does. And I’ve been completely unbothered by writing others thought was atrocious. I only know I didn’t like this and didn’t want to spend any more time on it.