A good ‘night’ book from another North Carolina author

First Posted: 8/26/2013

Think for a minute about books by North Carolina’s best writers.

Then tell me the one word that goes with the following words in the three recent book titles: Train, Woods, and Film.

Okay, here are the answers: Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train,” Charles Frazier’s “Night Woods,” and the just released “Night Film” by Marisha Pessl, who grew up in Asheville and gained national attention in 2006 with her debut novel “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.”

As Edgerton and Fraser could have explained to Pessl, writing the second novel after a wildly successful debut is a formidable challenge.

But, like Edgerton and Fraser, Pessl has proved she has the commitment and talent to give us a lifetime of rich storytelling.

“Night Film” burst onto the literary scene last week with reviews, mostly favorable, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today.

“I don’t read the reviews,” Pessl said when I told her that the Boston Globe’s review raved about the unusual, innovating organization of “Night Film.”

The Globe’s reviewer opined that the book’s first chapter “should go down in literary history as among the most notable formal innovations of this century. It consists of a series of Web pages…pertaining to the untimely death of a young woman, the strange career of her filmmaker father, and an ensuing journalistic investigation. …Remarkably, Pessl’s inclusion of the Internet feels not at all gimmicky or forced….They deepen the mystery Pessl sets out in traditional text. The cumulative effect is entrancing and delightful, infusing the narrative…with urgency and spookiness. It feels, above all things, new.”

Pessl was more interested in the reviewer’s praise for the book’s storytelling and rich writing.

So, what is the story of “Night Film”?

Ashley Cordova, daughter of Stanislas Cordova, the infamous, reclusive director of cult films, falls to her death in the elevator shaft of a deserted building in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Although the death is ruled a suicide, Scott McGrath, a down-and-out investigative journalist, suspects otherwise.

His investigation takes him and the book’s readers to the mental hospital from which Ashley escaped shortly before her death.

McGrath and two interesting young assistants, whom he picks up along the way, visit the places in New York where Ashley spent her last 10 days: the Waldorf Astoria, a walk-up apartment where Ashley took residence, a tattoo parlor, the Cordova family mansion, an exclusive bondage club, and other places to try to find out how and why Ashley died and who might be responsible.

McGrath also contacts her father’s actors, former spouses, staff members, and others who knew Stanislas Cordova. He visits the isolated estate where Stanislas made his films and Ashley grew up. He breaks into the secret webpage of a cult of Cordova movie fans. He does everything to find, as he suspects, some direct connection between the film director and his daughter’s death.

Then, when black magic and pacts with the devil pop up as clues, McGrath has to explore the possible connections. He starts out as a skeptic, “In the forty-three years I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen a ghost. Never had a cold chill pass through me. Never seen a miracle. Every time my mind wanted to jump to some mystical conclusion, I’ve always found that inclination was simply born of fear and there was a rational explanation behind it.”

His investigation forces him to reassess his views of the supernatural and much more, 600 pages worth.

“Night Film” is a long trip, but also a quick read, thanks to Pessl’s fast-paced story telling gifts.

And when she is ready to take her readers on another similar trip, I will be waiting at the station, ready to go.

— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.