Earlier this week, someone pointed me in the direction of Marisha Pessl’s new novel, Night Film, telling me that they’d heard it was “kind of like Danielewski’s House of Leaves.” As anyone who’s ever read that inexplicably terrifying, ultimately unknowable novel can attest, this isn’t the sort of comparison that gets made every day. It may, in fact, have been the first time I’d ever heard something compared to House of Leaves; it’s akin to saying that someone is “kind of like Pee-Wee Herman.”
Now, I’ve been a raving fan of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves ever since someone purchased the book for me back in 2001, so before I’d even read Night Film’s plot synopsis I was already penciling in a Barnes and Noble run on my next day off. Then I actually read the plot synopsis, and the Barnes and Noble run was promptly rescheduled to “As Soon as I Finish Reading This Plot Synopsis a Second Time”:
On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.
For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.
Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.
The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.
I tracked down a copy of Night Film at my local bookstore and, upon flipping through its dense ~600 pages, the thinking that went into that House of Leaves comparison became instantly apparent: much like Danielewski’s novel, Pessl’s Night Film is packed to the gills with drawings, creepy black and white photographs, transcribed phone calls, police reports, doodled-upon personal notes, and all sorts of other “visual aids” that flesh out the main story. House of Leaves’ truly bizarre typographical design choices aren’t present, but otherwise the presentation is very similar: the text is often interrupted by the aforementioned visuals, each non-textual page awash in detail (a reprinted slideshow from Time Magazine’s website, for instance, includes the number of Facebook “Likes” the slideshow acquired). The immediate impression one gets while leafing through it for the first time is, “Holy shit, someone went the extra mile*.”
Of course, just because a book has a similar layout to another doesn’t mean those books are going to make for equally engaging (and/or quality) reads. Any assclown with a penchant for scrapbooking could churn out a novel that looks a lot like House of Leaves, but, at the end of the day, House of Leaves was a helluva lot more than 700 pages' worth of flashy good looks. Would Pessl be able to deliver beyond the aesthetics?
The jury will obviously be out on that front until I've finished reading the book, but I will say this: I'm fifty some-odd pages into Night Film, and I'm finding it pretty damn hard to put down. The writing is fluid and hallucinatory and creepy, serving as a strong compliment to the visual components threaded throughout the book, and there are, indeed, a number of similarities between the book and House of Leaves. Those similarities (and any further opinions about Night Film) would probably best be reserved for a post-read analysis.
And on that note, I'm going to get back to reading. But for those of you who consider yourselves House of Leaves fans**, I thought you'd be curious to know that Night Film exists...and that the hype isn't totally unfounded. If that ain't exciting news, well, you probably haven't read House of Leaves.
* = For more on Night Film going the extra mile, check out Gawker's writeup about the film's interactive/online components, but be aware that some spoilers may abound.
** = Fun Fact: I met Danielewski once, and told him I'd read through House of Leaves multiple times, always discovering something new on each subsequent read. I asked if he had any "tips" or "clues" for deciphering some of the book's more obscure secrets, and he told me, "I'll give you this hint: if you ever really want to get to the bottom of things, you'll need to use a protractor and compass while reading the book." No idea if he was fucking with me or not. Given that book's intricacies, either seems as likely.