12 challenge, book 4 – Night Film

Late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Book one was Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates; book two was State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny; book three was Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

Book four is Night Film by Marisha Pessl.

I bought the kindle book so I had no idea that it was over 800 pages until I checked how far I was. I checked because I wanted to see how much room Pessl had to (attempt to) explain everything that had happened so far. That’s the kind of book this is: (how) will the author ever explain all of this?

The main character is now-disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath, whose downfall and obsession center on mysterious cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. No one’s seen Cordova in years – if perhaps ever. He hasn’t made movies since the 1990s and the ones he did make tend to be shown in out-of-the-way places, advertised by secret messages passed around by his devoted fans, banned from the mainstream because of their violence. Many people who’ve worked with Cordova have either withdrawn from the public or mysteriously disappeared, but they all agree that he changed their lives in a deep, incredible way.

Scott’s pretty sure that none of these changes are positive, and he set out to prove it a few years ago. That’s when he did an interview and spilled unverified information from a source he only spoke to over the telephone, resulting in a quarter million dollar payout to Cordova. (Scott is the kind of person who can apparently easily make a quarter million dollar payout, for the record, because he did. It’s been years, he’s not a trustworthy journalist anymore, and he’s still getting along in NYC. So.)

The thing that gets him back on his Cordova obsession is the death, and apparent suicide, of young Ashley Cordova. Scott, of course, refuses to believe it’s a suicide – to him it’s just another piece of the dark and demented Cordova puzzle. And he decides it’s time to reveal the truth about Cordova, once and for all. (Cue dramatic music.)

If you’re reading it on a kindle, you’re going to be annoyed by all of the “sources” that keep popping up: screenshots from the internet (complete with the address in the web browser at the top), pages from magazines, police files, that kind of thing. They’re a weird size, so you have to zoom in, but they’re also completely necessary to the story, so you can’t skip them (even when they feel scattered and disjointed at the start). I’m sure they look cool in the printed book, and there’s even exclusive bonus content on the website that makes it seem even more like Cordova’s a real person. Like yeah, sure, you’ve totally heard of one of his movies. Maybe when you were in college?

Basically Cordova is so secretive, so rich, and so much a cult figure that you know from the beginning that going after him is a very bad idea. Especially when the person going after him is Scott, and Scott’s introduced with his big downfall. You kind of have to wonder exactly how good of an investigative reporter this guy really is, to be honest, and whether he can really keep himself together long enough to see this through.

This is one of those books where the less you know going in, the better, so I’m not going to give any more details about the plot. I will say:

  • it pulled me along. 800+ pages or not, I read it in two days. I wanted to see if/how things would be explained.

  • this one walks the line between gritty reality and … would you call it magical realism? It uses that line as a tightrope and doesn’t really choose a side, unless you, personally, think it chooses a side (but even Scott himself isn’t entirely sure if his own life chooses a side). But that’s Cordova for you. (Seriously, it’s kind of weird how much the book centers around this fictional character that you really feel you must’ve heard of before, and how much it aligns with his fictional oeuvre. You know the type right away.)

  • I like the ending. I was worried for a while, but there were still more pages, and I like the ending.

It’s haunting and weird and suspenseful and disturbing and sometimes a bit over the top, with everything in shades of gray. It pulls you along, but also deeper in the muck and murk, so it’s not some quick, lighthearted beach read. It’s troubling, but it doesn’t want to make sure you feel better by the end.

That’s not how Cordova rolls.


What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?

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