You might want to keep some Post-its nearby when you read this byzantine novel, Night Film, by the author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. There are so many elaborate twists that you’ll need to map them on your wall not just with sticky notes but with color-coded yarn as well, preferably while blasting the same manic avant-jazz music that Claire Danes loves on Homeland. It would be worth the effort, at least for a while. This gripping story opens with the reported suicide of 24-year-old piano prodigy Ashley Cordova. She’s the daughter of cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, whose Lynchian ”night films” are so disturbing, his fans suspect that he captured real crimes instead of staging acts of violence. If there’s a deeper mystery behind Stanislas’ work, maybe there’s one behind Ashley’s death, too?
A journalist named Scott McGrath decides to investigate, grilling Stanislas’ inner circle while poring over photos, news clips, screen grabs from fansites, even an encyclopedia entry about a dragonlike ”kirin” from Japan. (Long story.) These documents appear in Night Film throughout the narrative, and that structure is fitting, because it looks like Marisha Pessl has strung the story together from little scraps of jotted-down ideas — ambitious ones, mostly, about the power of myth and the need for magic in an ordinary world, but also a few crazy ones that might make frustrated readers want to ride that Japanese kirin back to the hour before they started reading the book.
Assuming you don’t mind a little crazy, the first 400 pages of Night Film make for a masterful puzzle. The vivid oddballs in Cordova’s world could’ve been sprung from a film-noir classic, complete with the inexplicable urge to spill their secrets to strangers. And by forcing you to sort out the clues from the red herrings, Pessl builds up real suspense. The trouble, though, arrives in the last 50 pages, with so many fake-out endings, it’s hard to tell what happened, even in a literal sense. You’ll want to save your last three Post-its for the letters W, T, and F. B