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Bük Kloob: Night Film

Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.

The cult of Dario Argento is huge. People love his horror films because they are graphic and gory and dwell in between surrealist nightmares and real world tragedies. A lot of his films are based on absurdity but they all are dreamy and good in their own way. The auteur has amassed a huge following in the past decade, crossing over from an underground artist to a beloved dark icon. His films are screened during horror festivals and anyone related to him is a star in the Argento galaxy.

Diving into the mind of Argento, what would you find? Would it be typical cinematic speak or a dark pool of the unspeakable? We may never know—but we do know that his films aren’t real. This idea is a toy that writer Marisha Pessl has picked up and aggressively plays with in the sprawling modern masterpiece Night Film. It’s the story of a (heavily) fictionalized Argento and a literal cult tied to his personality. It’s a deep mystery with a foot in a detective cat-and-mouse game and black magic realism.

The story isn’t about the Argento, though: it’s about an investigative journalist named Scott McGrath who is trying to understand why the daughter of the Argento—whose name is Stanislav Cordova—assumedly committed suicide. Did she commit suicide or is there some foul play? It starts innocently enough with McGrath’s stereotypical hardened curiosity leading him in and out of his own imagination. He wants to understand what happens but he is unable to let himself follow the plot. Was Ashley in trouble? Did she have mental issues? Was she being haunted by something otherworldly, by something magical?

Pessl packs a lot into the book to answer those questions. Not only does she create a fake canon for Cordova but she intertwines so many stories: you have Cordova and his entire family along with McGrath and his fucked up life drama along with the lives of his two sidekicks, the young dreamer Nora Halliday and the elusive involved/uninvolved Hopper. The book is crafted to pick at itself, to lead you places you know you are going while walking you in the opposite direction at the same time. It tells you everything and nothing and, by the end of the book, when McGrath thinks he “knows” what has happened, Pessl shifts the floor again and again.

Night Film shouldn’t be as involved as it is nor should it be as good: it should be a hundred page pulp novel. Instead, it is a huge six hundred page monster that crawls out in every direction. Pessl creates characters that are obviously stereotypes of other, more popular, arguably better characters yet they work—and that’s because the central, offstage character of Cordova is so rich. If he weren’t as good as he is, the entire book would crumple in on itself. Instead, you get a read that is akin to digging a hole in the search of a body: you keep digging and digging and digging until you’ve forgotten what you are looking for, until anything you find was what you wanted. It might not be right but it’s something.

To be noted: I didn’t “read” the book but listened to this one on audiobook. It’s actually really well done, thanks to Jake Weber‘s vocal talents. He doesn’t let the book drop into radio theatre and he does an excellent job of defining characters. You want to keep listening and learning more because he has such a good handle of language. Moreover, he doesn’t add too much to the take, he doesn’t pull you away from it with his projections. That’s rare with audiobooks. Another perk of it / pain of it is that his reading reveals the occasional hollowness of Pessl’s characters.

Is that really a problem, though? No. It’s such a fun read. It’s a great book.

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