On Giving Up on Night Film After Only 50 Pages

Night FilmI 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.

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20 Responses to On Giving Up on Night Film After Only 50 Pages

  1. I definitely see what you mean by “belabored.” It’s always such a disappointment when something (negative) about the writing calls attention to the fact that this is a just book, created by a mere mortal. So to me “bad writing” is anything that breaks the spell. Sometimes I can regain interest in the story purely for the story’s sake, but the magic is missing.

    Whenever I question whether or not to keep reading a book, I remember Daniel Pennac’s “10 inalienable rights of the reader”–see no. 3! Thank goodness for the lit teacher who once showed me this list. I think to her it was a bit of a joke, but for me it’s proven the key to happiness!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! Writing that breaks the spell. I love that definition. The writing here definitely broke the spell, and it’s a spell I was all set to succumb to.

      And I fully support the right not to finish. My only worry is that I’m going to miss something great if I quit. But I may also rob myself of time for something even better if I persevere.

  2. I loved this review. I couldn’t get past “her brown eyes were slowly moving over my face.” Girl needs an editor, stat! These days, strange writing seems to pass for edgy writing. Writing bad metaphors in a faux-noir style takes real talent. I shall pass this book by, as I do nearly all of the hyped contemporary pastiches. I also share your frustration with italics; even Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates sometimes don’t seem to know when less is more.

    • Teresa says:

      What I wonder is what this looked like before it was edited—or was her editor told to take a light hand? And yeah, I’ve seen lots of writing that seemed clunky being praised as inventive. I know some of that is down to personal taste, but most of these metaphors fall apart with even a small amount of scrutiny.

      As for the italics, a quick survey of about a dozen random pages found multiple instances of italics on every page. It’s way over the top.

  3. Swistle says:

    Even those excerpts were plenty for me. “Belabored” is exactly the right word.

  4. Perfectly fair! I have no arguments to make with anything you’ve said. Your criticisms are merited. For some reason I liked the book when you did not, even while agreeing with all the things you’re saying made you dislike the book — isn’t it odd how that happens?

    • Teresa says:

      It is strange how that happens, but it happens to me a lot. I know that, although I love a good plot, you’re more interested in plot than I am, so that may be part of it. I had no complaints about the bit of plot I got to. I just couldn’t get over the writing.

      But the good news is that I’ll probably be getting to The People in the Trees sooner than I thought. Maybe next week! It’s waiting now at the library, so I’ll get it when I return this.

  5. Great Review – I had the same problems with her first book – Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I don’t think I even made it as far as page 50. I won’t be reading this one either.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked Calamity Physics. I don’t remember much of anything about it, including why I liked it, but I remember liking it. (Not loving, but liking.)

  6. Melissa says:

    I’ve been debating picking this one up because the hype has been so positive, but for some reason I just haven’t felt any desire to. I’m glad to read a review that isn’t over the moon. I won’t rush out to get a copy.

  7. Stefanie says:

    After Litlove’s review I thought I might give the book a go some time, but now after yours and those excerpts I’m not so sure. Those italics kind of bugged me and if they are all through the book then maybe I will skip this one after all.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know if the italics alone would have done me in. It was the italics and the goofy metaphors together. If you’re on the fence still, maybe read a sample page or two in the library. The quotes may seem worse out of context (although they did stick out to me as I read).

  8. litlove says:

    I do think the italics are make or break. There was a point early on in the book when I was really annoyed by them. But the premise was interesting and I liked the story and wanted to see what happened. Then I stopped noticing the italics so much. But hey, there are a LOT of books out there, and we only have so much time on our hands. It’s good to make choices.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s possible my annoyance would have worn off over time, but at the point when I gave up it was only mounting. The spell hadn’t been cast thoroughly enough to keep me in the story, However, I am curious enough about the story to think I’ll see the movie version. That takes a lot less time.

  9. Deb says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your review. In fact, I think I commented on your post about what you had on tap to read. I found it poorly-written and all of the ancillary “supporting” documentation was both overwhelming in volume and served no purpose in furthering the narrative.

  10. Jenny says:

    Hey Teresa, just reading your posts I missed while I was out of blog commission and had to comment on this one. I tried Calamity Physics when it came out and couldn’t finish it. It was just so effing twee. All the crazy metaphors and references, one after another, like someone throwing spitballs at you to see if they’ll stick. And the writing. And the italics. I felt like I couldn’t get a thought in edgewise. But I know so many people who adored it, I mostly keep that opinion to myself. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t remember much about Calamity Physics, other than that I liked it but not enough to put Pessl on my must-read author list. I don’t remember a thing about the writing other than that it was kind of quirky. This kind of writing would be more forgivable with an oddball teenage narrator, so maybe that’s why it didn’t bother me so much.

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