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October 1, 2013

I’m a Slave 4 revU


Marisha Pessl’s paradigm-shifting new novel, NIGHT FILM, was all the rage late this summer. It’s part noir thriller, part psychological mystery and part meta-commentary on the way people relate to art and the artists who make it. Obviously I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it, so when a copy arrived at our office, I played it super cool so no one would suspect anything and slipped it stealthily into my bag (in a move that even Liesel Meminger would’ve been proud of! BOOK THIEF jokes! So not appropriate here!) before anyone had the chance to wise up.

Of course they eventually did, and once everyone realized I was the official advanced reader for NIGHT FILM (meaning I was reading the book ahead of time, not that I’m in any way the sharpest tool in this book-loving shed), my coworkers started flooding my inbox with links to early reviews of the book. Obviously, they imagined they were being helpful --- supportive, even --- but fellow neurotic readers will appreciate that reading about the book you’re reading rarely enriches the experience. In fact, I find it undermines it the whole experience of getting into it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk specifics: NIGHT FILM is a huge literary thriller (maybe 150 pages too huge?) about disgraced journalist Scott McGrath who becomes obsessed to the point of insanity with the death of Ashley Cordova, the troubled daughter of cult horror film director and notorious recluse Stanislas Cordova. The premise of much of his work is that it’s disturbing enough to shove people out of their comfortable apathy --- to focus on the darkest parts of human nature and topple his viewers’ flimsily constructed worldviews. McGrath has a bit of a history with Cordova. His first attempt to discredit the director resulted in the demise of his own career --- as well as his marriage. McGrath believes Cordova set him up, and his investigation into Ashley’s death several years later reeks of personal vendetta. Of course, like any interesting noir protagonist, he is blinded by his own arrogance and preconceptions. 

None of this is particularly cutting edge stuff. What is really cool about NIGHT FILM is how successfully Pessl created the larger-than-life Cordova, and how his presence can be keenly felt in every darkened nook and red-lit cranny. McGrath can’t seem to escape Cordova, and neither can you, as the reader. As McGrath gets deeper and deeper into Cordova’s world (literally --- at one point he actually breaks into the director’s estate and takes a kind of hallucinatory journey through Cordova’s various movie sets), he begins to question his own reality --- which is, of course, the point all along. Pessl messes with reality on a super-meta level, and neither her characters nor her readers can escape.

But I’m not here to review NIGHT FILM. Quite the contrary --- I’m talking about why looking at reviews of the book while I was reading it ruined it for me. And not just because of spoilers; most reviewers were pretty careful not to reveal too much of Pessl’s labyrinthine --- and sometimes gimmicky --- plot twists. So back to my flooded inbox, with links to reviews from Slate and the Guardian and the New York Times and anything else my coworkers could dredge up from the dark corners of the Internet (read: the first page of Google). Some of the reviewers were crazy about the book; others, not so much. Pretty standard critic approval:disapproval ratio.

Thing is, I’m ridiculously easily influenced by other people’s reactions to things. It’s not that I can’t make up my mind for myself, but I have a tendency to over-empathize with everything, so when I hear/read something it gets absorbed into all the other stuff that’s going on in my brain, whether I want it there or not. I’m sure you know what I mean, no matter how independent-minded you are. (Wait. Do you not? Maybe I don’t either?) So when the Slate review compares NIGHT FILM to “a rickety ghost train” (pointing out that you can still choose to enjoy the ride) and the Times suggests that the novel itself seems “self-satisfied,” it’s hard not to read those things into your own experience of the book.

I was already almost 100 pages in before I read the reviews, and at that point I’d already recommended the book to just about everyone I would generally recommend books to: my mom, some friends, my old boss, my therapist. But once I started reading other people’s opinions (professional opinions, and therefore more self-assured?), mine was undeniably colored. I started seeing the flaws --- kind of like when your friends point out the things they don’t like about the guy you just started dating and all you see when you look at him is his weird hairline. Maybe you trust your friends’ opinions and not so much your own, maybe popular opinion always rules, or maybe his hairline is just super weird (we’re all still on the same page with this metaphor, right?). Whatever the reason is, it’s hard to shut out the voices.

I’m certainly aware of the irony here. Reviews are important because they help us think about books in greater depth (and I’m not naïve about their industry merit, either). I mean, I’m the first to admit that I’m addicted to reading TV reviews --- although I would never read one before (or *gasp* while) watching the episode. And that’s an interesting distinction, by the way: We tend to read reviews of books, and movies, even --- things that will take a greater investment of our time --- before we commit to the thing itself. Part of what we look to reviews for is to facilitate a choice, so we’re definitely placing a degree of trust in our critics and reviewers. Which is a good thing, of course. It’s also good, though, to know yourself, and to be able to decide how you want to experience a book. And to not be so compulsive about clicking on all the links in your inbox.