In many ways, it’s a strange thing to say– but for the purposes of mad reading marathons, God bless long chunks of travel, at least if they involve airplanes and trains, two vehicles that, unlike cars, allow me to sink my nose into a book without suffering nauseous consequences. Over the past week and a half, I’ve had my share and then some of lengthy journeys up and down the east-central portion of this country, plowing through pages while doing so. The last book to fall to my super dedication? Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, the last section of which was hacked away today while Amtrak alternately lurched and sped me through fields and industrial wastelands.
I truly loved Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics– and so I had high hopes for this, her second book. But her debut was a tough act to follow, and so I’m unsurprised that work #2 didn’t measure up to its predecessor. That’s not to say, though, that Night Film was bad. Quite the contrary; Pessl makes masterful use of suspense, and knows how to craft and keep straight very intricate worlds. She’s even given me a bit more appreciation for detective novels.
And here we come to the crux of the matter: what’s the difference between great writing and writing that pulls a reader in? If meditation on universals and matters of the soul are part of the first, then, sure, I can understand how the two might clearly be separated; other than a very brief consideration of why the protagonist inherently desired and/or needed to be as credulous as he was, Night Film is not a contemplation of life’s deeper questions. And detective fiction in general relies a little too much on convenient coincidence and many characters’ not-quite-believable desire to confess to qualify the genre as illuminating the human condition. But there’s something else, here, too, that makes the book an entertainingly good read, but not superior literature– and I’m not going to nail that something down with the following offering, but Pessl’s weird and frequent use of italics may have something to do with what’s holding the book back. It seems she doesn’t trust the reader to place the emphasis she’s hearing in a character’s thoughts or spoken words, as if we won’t catch what’s going on or have the correct emotional response unless she holds our hands and explicitly points it out to us. In other words, I sensed an authorial fear of giving up control over how the work is received; it was just enough of a visible attempt to manage the reader’s experience, an inability to let the writer’s hand disappear behind her own words, that had this bookworm, at least, feeling a bit constricted. Given, every author has to craft her or his own narrative in order to say what s/he has to say, and to make one reading experience different from any other. Hence, grammar, style conventions, and the like. But then there’s also the ability to trust in the power of one’s own story, to just let it go and do its work, that didn’t come through fully here.
The story itself did work, even at points where I thought Pessl had gone just a bit too far. And then in the end, does everything need to be, or even to aspire to be, great literature? No, I say categorically. As a cinematic analogue/example, I’ll allege that life would be far less worthwhile, and grim, without Ghostbusters or The Naked Gun. Sometimes, we just need to be sucked into a magical, or even completely goofy, world for a few hours in order not to fall victim to the mundanity of our own. That’s a matter Pessl did address, and told a good tale while doing so. Whatever her next book turns out being, then, you can bet I’ll dive into it, and eagerly to boot.