I was quite impressed with this book in the beginning. Although other books have dabbled in a similar mixed media/collage kind of presentation (such as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Pessl is no stranger to invention in her prose. Her previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, also adopted an unusual format.
The story, which could be seen as a tribute to cult films in terms of both substance and style, is about the fictional reclusive noir filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, as told by an investigative journalist, Scott McGrath. McGrath, 43, once had a successful career, even authoring several books, until he tried to take on the subject of Cordova. He was sued for slander for some remarks he made on television, and forced to abandon the project. Now he was mostly referred to as “disgraced journalist Scott McGrath.”
As the book begins, McGrath finds out that Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley, known as a beautiful and talented (but also reclusive) pianist, was found dead of an apparent suicide. McGrath can’t resist trying to find out what happened, especially since he suspected that something very illegal or immoral went on during the making of Cordova’s violent films, in which the depiction of horror seemed a little too real to be fake.
He is joined on the pursuit of his “great white whale” by two assistants he acquired in the course of interviewing people who had last seen Ashley. Hopper Cole is a drug-dealer and Nora Halliday is an aspiring actress. They both insist on getting in on the investigation. This unlikely trio follows clues around that lead them to yet more clues, much like in John Green’s Paper Towns (see my review here), which was also a modern-day Moby Dick quest for a girl who disappeared. [Interestingly, there are also echoes of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, in which the two main characters not only go on a mission to gain understanding of the author of an esoteric work, but who also are guided in part by T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a major motif in this work as well.]
As the threesome get closer to the heart of darkness, the story gets scarier, and we are never sure if any or all of them will survive, or if they do, if they will be mentally and/or physically intact.
What I Liked:
Pessl is extremely creative. I enjoyed her use of photographs and webpages and newspaper clippings that are interspersed with the text.
She also can make a mean metaphor. There is Nora, in a diner, and “on the table in front of her was a plate of half-finished French toast floating like a houseboat on the Mississippi in a pool of syrup.” Can’t you just see it? Or Hopper, looking up at the sky, squinting at birds on the telephone wires:
“More had appeared out of nowhere. Now there were seven – seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging, giving up as they stretched between poles and twisted on down the road.”
The pacing is often masterful as well. After a tense paragraph full of frightening images, a lone sentence:
“Somewhere far away, a dog barked.”
What I Didn’t Like:
Italics. Was the author being paid by the italicized word? I tend to agree with the theory that strong, artfully rendered prose eliminates the need, or excessive need, for italics. The frequency of use, and sometimes puzzling reason for it, became distracting.
Too much of a not-all-that-great thing. The book goes on and on in ways that seemed to have two goals: (1) to explore aspects of cult film and (2) to misdirect readers so as to add to the mysteriousness of the story. As for the first, I’m not such a fan, and to me it just added length and made me impatient. It reminded me a bit of the film version of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Director Martin Scorsese turned that story into an ode to the filmmaking of the legendary Georges Méliès. This extended the movie, and if film history isn’t your thing, that emphasis might have seemed boring (as it did to me).
As for the red herrings and misdirections, I think there were just too many. The book was quite long, and I don’t think it would have detracted from the story to have been scaled back. That way, perhaps I might not have felt quite so much that I had been robbed at the end. Which brings me to…
The ending. I found it to be unsatisfactory and perhaps too weird. I could see how it could have been “meta” but I still wished it would have been betta…. For me, it veered into the “rolls eyes” domain.
Evaluation: I think the author has a lot of talent, but I was more under– than over-whelmed by this book. However, if you are into dark noir cult films, you will probably love this book. Is the extent of our fear of experiencing the dark side really what defines us? This story pushes the boundaries both within and outside itself, as well as within and outside its characters. If you like the idea of taking a dark trip down the Rabbit Hole, this book is for you!
Published by Random House, 2013