Exclusive First Read: Marisha Pessl's 'Night Film'
Marisha Pessl's dark, cinematic and wildly over-the-top new novel, Night Film, starts with a mysterious death: Ashley Cordova, troubled former child prodigy and daughter of mysterious filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, is found dead at the bottom of a disused elevator shaft, an apparent suicide. Disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath thinks there's more to the case. He's tangled with Cordova before and come out on the losing end, but — almost against his will — he's about to get drawn back into the filmmaker's strange orbit. In this excerpt, McGrath is at a Manhattan cocktail party when he gets the news of Ashley Cordova's death. Night Film will be published Aug. 20.
A large chandelier showered golden light on the crowd as I surveyed the party in the bronze mirror over the mantel. I was startled to spot someone I barely recognized: myself. Blue button-down, sports jacket, third or fourth drink — I was losing count — leaning against the wall like I was holding it up. I looked like I wasn't at a cocktail party but an airport, waiting for my life to take off.
Every time I planted myself at these charity soirees, lost scenes from my married life, I wondered why I kept coming.
Maybe I liked facing a firing squad.
"Scott McGrath, great to see you!"
Wish I could say the same, I thought.
"Working on anything cool these days?"
"Still teaching that journalism class at the New School?"
They suggested I take a sabbatical. In other words? Cutbacks.
"Didn't know you were still in the city."
I never knew what to say to that one. Did they think I'd been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?
I was at this party thanks to one of my ex-wife Cynthia's friends, a woman named Birdie. I found it both amusing and flattering that, long after my wife had divorced me, swimming on to bluer seas, a dense school of her girlfriends swirled around me as if I were an interesting shipwreck, looking for a piece of rubble to salvage and take home. Birdie was blond, forties, and hadn't left my side for the better part of two hours. Every now and then, her hand squeezed my arm — a signal that her husband, some hedge-fund guy (hedge fungi) was out of town and her three kids Guantanamoed with a nanny. Only a summons from the hostess to show Birdie her newly renovated kitchen had pried the woman from my side.
"Don't go anywhere," Birdie had said.
I'd done precisely that. This wreckage wanted to stay submerged.
I drained the rest of my scotch, was about to head back to the bar, when I felt my BlackBerry buzzing.
I slipped through the door behind me onto the second-floor landing. It was a text from my old attorney, Stu Laughton. I hadn't heard from Stu in at least six months.
Cordova's daughter found dead.
I closed the message and Googled Cordova, scrolling the returns.
It was true. And there was my goddamn name in quite a few articles.
"Disgraced journalist Scott McGrath . . ."
I'd be a marked man, peppered with questions, the moment this latest news circulated the party.
Suddenly, I was sober. I slipped through the crowd, down the spiral marble stairs. No one said a word as I grabbed my coat, walked past the bronze bust of the hostess (which, in a shameless use of artistic license, made her resemble Elizabeth Taylor), out the front door, and down the townhouse steps onto East Ninety-fourth Street. I headed to Fifth, breathing in the damp October night. I hailed a taxi and climbed in.
"West Fourth and Perry."
As we took off, I unrolled the window and felt my stomach tighten as the reality of it settled in: Cordova's daughter found dead. What was the unfiltered sound-bite I'd blurted on national television?
Cordova's a predator — in the same league as Manson, Jim Jones, Colonel Kurtz. I have an inside source who worked for the family for years. Someone needs to terminate this guy with extreme prejudice.
That inspired tidbit cost me my career, my reputation — not to mention a quarter of a million dollars — but that didn't make it any less true. Though I probably should have stopped talking after Charles Manson.
I couldn't help but laugh at myself for feeling like a fugitive — or maybe the more apt comparison was a Most Wanted radical. Yet I had to admit there was something electrifying about seeing that name again — Cordova — in the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it was time to start running for my life again.
Twenty minutes later, I let myself into my apartment at 30 Perry Street.
"I said I had to be out of here by nine," a voice announced behind me as I closed the door. "It's after one. What the hell?"
Her name was Jeannie, but no sane man would ever dream of her.
Two weekends a month when I had legal visitation with my five-year-old daughter, Samantha, my ex-wife, in an eighteen-year two-for-one promotion, decreed it compulsory I also take custody of Jeannie, the nanny. She was a twenty-four-year-old Yale graduate studying education at Columbia and clearly relished her powerful position as the designated bodyguard, the private escort, the Blackwater detail for Sam whenever she ventured into my dangerous custody. In this equation, I was the unstable Third World nation with a corrupt government, substandard infrastructure, rebel unrest, and an economy in free-fall.
"I'm sorry," I said, throwing my jacket over the chair. "I lost track of time. Where's Sam?"
"Did you find her cloud pajamas?"
"No. I was supposed to be at a study group four hours ago."
"I'll pay you double, so you can hire a tutor." I took out my wallet, handed Jeannie about five hundred bucks, which she happily zipped into her backpack, and then I moved deliberately around her, heading down the hall.
"Oh, and Mr. McGrath? Cynthia wanted to know if she could switch weekends with you next weekend."
I stopped outside the closed door at the end, turning back.
"She and Bruce are going to Santa Barbara."
"I made plans. We'll stick to the schedule."
"But they already made the arrangements."
"They can unmake them."
Jeannie opened her mouth to protest, but clamped it shut — sensing, quite rightly, that the territory between two people who were once soul mates but were no longer was akin to wandering into Pakistan's tribal region.
"She's gonna call you about it," she noted quietly.
"Good night, Jeannie."
With a dubious sigh, she let herself out. I entered my office, switched on the desk lamp, and nudged the door closed behind me.
Santa Barbara, my ass.
My office was a small, neglected, green-walled room of filing cabinets, photographs, magazines, and piles of books.
There was a framed picture on my desk of Samantha, taken on the day she was born, her face ancient and elflike. Hanging on the wall was a movie poster of a debonair but exhausted-looking Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. The print had been a gift from my old editor at Insider. He'd told me that I reminded him of the main character — a lonely French existentialist hit man — which wasn't a compliment. Across the room, left over from my Phi Psi frat-house days at the University of Michigan, was a sagging brown leather couch (on which I'd both lost my virginity and pounded out every one of my best stories). Hanging above that were framed covers of my books — MasterCard Nation, Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry, Cocaine Carnivals. They looked faded, the dust jacket designs very late-nineties. There were also a few copies of my more famous Esquire, Time, and Insider articles: "In Search of El Dorado." "Black Snow Inferno." "Surviving a Siberian Prison." Two giant windows opposite the door overlooked Perry Street and a banged‑up poplar tree, though it was too dark to see it now.
I walked to the bookshelf in the corner, beside the photograph of me in Manaus with my arm around a hecatao river trader, looking irritatingly happy and tan — snapshot from a past life — and poured myself a scotch.
I'd bought six cases of the Macallan Cask Strength during my 2007 three-week road trip through Scotland. The trip had been taken at the inspired suggestion of my shrink, Dr. Weaver, after Cynthia had informed me that she and my nine-month-old daughter were leaving me for Bruce — a venture capitalist with whom she'd been having an affair.
It was just months after Cordova slapped me with the slander lawsuit. You'd think out of mercy Cynthia would have rationed the bad news, told me first that I traveled too much, then that she'd been unfaithful, then that she was madly in love, and finally, that they were each divorcing their respective spouses to be together. Instead, it all came on the same day — like a quiet coastal town already hit by famine, further hit by a mudslide, a tsunami, a meteorite, and, to top it all off, a little alien invasion.
But then, maybe it was better that way: Rather early in the chain of disasters, there was nothing left standing to destroy.
The purpose of my trip to Scotland had been to start anew, turn the page — get in touch with my heritage and hence myself, by visiting the locale where four generations of McGraths had been born and flourished: a tiny town in Moray, Scotland, called Fogwatt. I should have known simply from the name it'd be no Brigadoon. Dr. Weaver's suggestion turned out to be akin to learning my ancestors had arisen from the criminally insane ward at Bellevue. Fogwatt comprised a few crooked white buildings clinging to a gray hill like a couple of teeth left in an old mouth. Women trudged through town with the hardened faces of those who'd survived a plague. Silent red fat men blistered every bar in town. I thought things were looking up when I'd ended up in bed with an attractive bartender named Maisie — until it occurred to me she could feasibly be my distant cousin. Just when you think you've hit rock bottom, you realize you're standing on another trapdoor.
I downed the scotch — instantly feeling a little more alive — poured another, and moved to the closet behind my desk.
It'd been at least a year since I'd ventured in there.
The door was jammed, and I had to force it open, kicking aside old sneakers and blueprints of the Amagansett beach house I'd considered buying Cynthia in an eleventh-hour attempt to "work things out." The million-dollar marital Band-Aid, never a wise idea. I pried loose what was obstructing the door, a framed photo of Cynthia and me, taken when we were touring Brazil on a Ducati, searching for illegal gold mines, so in love, it was impossible to fathom a day it might not be the case. God, she was gorgeous. I chucked the picture aside, pushed back piles of National Geographics, and found what I was looking for — a cardboard box.
I pulled it out, hauled it over to my desk, and sat back in my chair, staring down at it.
The duct tape I'd sealed it with was unsticking.
The decision, five years ago, to take the man on as a subject had been accidental. I'd just come back from an exhausting six-week sojourn in Freetown, a Sierra Leone slum. At about three in the morning, wide awake, jet-lagged, I found myself clicking onto an article about Amy's Light, the nonprofit dedicated to scouring the Internet for Cordova's black tapes, buying them, and destroying them. A mother whose daughter had been brutally killed by a copycat murderer founded the organization. Like the central murder in Wait for Me Here, Hugh Thistleton had kidnapped her daughter, Amy, from a street corner, where she was waiting for her brother to return from a 7-Eleven, took her to an abandoned mill, and fed her through the machinery.
An organization dedicated to keep Cordova from infecting our youth, declared the website. This mandate I found to be poignant for its sheer impossibility — trying to rid the Internet of Cordova was like trying to rid the Amazon of insects. Yet I didn't agree with it. As a journalist, freedom of speech and expression were cornerstones — principles so deeply embedded in America's bedrock that to surrender even an inch would be our country's undoing. I was also staunchly anticensorship — Cordova could no more be held responsible for Amy Andrews's gruesome death than the beef industry for giving Americans fatal heart attacks. As much as some people would like to believe, for their own peace of mind, that the appearance of evil in this world had a clean cause, the truth was never that simple.
Until that night, I'd hardly given Cordova a second thought beyond enjoying (and getting creeped out by) some of his early films. Wondering about the motives of a reclusive director was not my professional aim or my specialty. I tackled stories with stakes, where life and death were on the line. The most hopeless of all hopeless causes was where my heart tended to go when on the lookout for a new subject.
Somehow, at some point that night, my heart got into it.
Maybe it was because Sam had been born just a few months before and, suddenly faced with fatherhood, I was more susceptible than usual to the idea of protecting this beautiful clean slate — protecting any child — from the destabilizing horrors that Cordova represented. Whatever the reason, the longer I clicked through the hundreds of Cordova blogs and fansites and anonymous message boards, many of the postings by kids as young as nine and ten — the more insistent my sense that something was wrong with Cordova.
In hindsight, the experience reminded me of an alcoholic South African reporter whose path I'd crossed at the Hilton in Nairobi when I was there in 2003 working on a story about the ivory trade. He was on his way to a remote village in the southwest where a Taita tribe, close to the Tanzanian border, was dying out and was considered walaani — cursed — because no child born there could live longer than eleven days. We'd met at the hotel bar and after commiserating over the fact that both of us had recently been carjacked (validating the city's nickname, Nairobbery), the man told me he was thinking about missing his bus the following morning, abandoning the story altogether, because of what had befallen the three reporters who'd gone before him to the village. One had apparently gone mad, wandering the streets stuttering nonsense. Another had quit and a week later had hanged himself in a Mombasa hotel room. The third had vanished into thin air, abandoning his family and a post at the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"It's infected," the man mumbled. "The story. Some are, you know."
I'd chuckled, assuming such dramatics were a side effect of the Chivas Regal we'd been guzzling all night. Yet he went on.
"It's a lintwurm." He squinted at me, his bloodshot eyes searching my face for understanding. "A tapeworm that's eaten its own tail. No use going after it. Because there's no end. All it will do is wrap around your heart and squeeze all the blood out." He held up a tightened fist. "Dit suig jou droog. Some stories you should run from while you still have legs."
I never did find out if he made it to that village.
Cordova's daughter found dead. The thought pulled me back to the present, and I opened the old box, grabbed a stack of papers, and started through it.
First: a typed list of all the actors who'd worked with Cordova. Then a list of shooting locations from his first film, Figures Bathed in Light. Pauline Kael's review of Distortion, "Unraveling Innocence." A film still of Marlowe Hughes in bed in the closing shot of Lovechild. Typed transcripts of my notes from Crowthorpe Falls. A photo I'd snapped of the fencing surrounding Cordova's property, The Peak. Wolfgang Beckman's syllabus for his Cordova class, taught a few years ago at Columbia film school, though he was forced to cancel it after only three classes due to outcry from parents. ("Special Topics in Cordova: Darkly Alive and Totally Petrifying," he'd impishly called the class.) A DVD of the PBS documentary on Cordova from 2003, Dark's Warden. And then a transcript from an anonymous phone call.
John. The mysterious caller who proved to be my undoing.
I pulled the three pages out of the pile.
Every time I read through them, transcribed within minutes of hanging up — I tried and failed to find the moment in the conversation where I'd lost my head. What, exactly, had prompted me to disregard twenty years' experience and jump the shark during a television appearance not twenty-four hours later?
There's something he does to the children.
Even now, I remembered the old man's terrified voice on the phone.
I don't remember much about my interview on Nightline — except that I did most of the talking. My purpose for appearing on the program was to discuss prison reform. Much to the delight of Nightline's host, I veered way off topic, bringing up Cordova. After we wrapped, oblivious to the shit storm about to ensue, I was filled with satisfaction, the kind a man feels only when he's finally told it like it is.
Then the calls started coming: first, my agent asking what I'd been smoking, then my attorney saying he'd just heard from the brass at ABC.
"You put a hit out on Stanislas Cordova."
"What? No — "
"They just faxed me the transcript. I'm reading here, you interrupted Martin Bashir to announce Cordova should be terminated 'with extreme prejudice.' "
"I was being ironic."
"There's no irony in television, Scott."
Needless to say, I never heard from John again. He vanished.
Cordova's attorneys contended I'd not only put their client's life and his family at risk, but I'd actually fabricated the anonymous call — that I'd walked to the pay phone a block from my apartment and phoned myself in order to establish record of a fictitious source.
I laughed at the preposterous allegation — then ate my own words when I realized I couldn't prove otherwise. Even my attorney was vague on whether or not he believed me. He suggested John was real but had been scared off by my rogue behavior.
I had no choice but to settle the lawsuit, conceding my guilt of not actual malice, but reckless disregard for the truth. I paid the Cordova estate $250,000 in damages, a fair chunk of what I'd saved from my books and stories, building a career on the notion of uncompromising integrity, which was now in shreds. I was fired from Insider, my column nixed at Time. I'd been in preliminary talks at CNN about hosting a weekly investigative news show. Now the idea was laughable.
"McGrath's like a revered sports hero who's been caught doping," declared Wolf Blitzer. "We need to question everything the man's written and everything he's said."
"You should think about teaching or becoming a life coach," my agent informed me. "In journalism, you're untouchable at the moment."
It was a moment that lasted. Disgraced journalist became cemented to my name like ex-con. I was a "symptom of the sloppy state of American reporting." A mash‑up video of me appeared on YouTube in which I repeated thirty-nine times (my voice Auto-Tuned) terminate with extreme prejudice.
I abandoned the investigation. The night I made that decision, packing my notes away, I was embroiled in the slander lawsuit. Cynthia and Sam had moved out, leaving a silence so total it felt as if I'd undergone surgery without my consent. Though I was alive, I was left with the vague suspicion something was permanently off inside me. It was beyond my reach, some vital nerve twisted, some organ accidentally put back upside down. I felt only rage toward Cordova — neatly concealed behind his lawyers — an anger especially gutting because it was really toward myself, for my own arrogance and stupidity.
Because I knew my downfall was no accident. Cordova, displaying a foresight and intelligence I hadn't anticipated, had outmaneuvered me. I was down, knocked out, the fight over, a winner declared — before I'd even stepped fully into the ring.
I'd been masterfully set up. John had been the bait. Seeing I was coming after him, Cordova had designed a booby trap using this anonymous caller, knowing, with almost superhuman clairvoyance, the man's haunting suggestion — there's something he does to the children — would strike a nerve with me, and then he sat back as I dug my own grave.
And yet if Cordova had been that concerned about my investigation to go to such lengths to get rid of me, what was he actually hiding — something even more explosive?
I'd resolved to let it go, leave it alone, focus instead on getting some semblance of a life back.
But here I was again. I downed the rest of the scotch, grabbed another stack of pages, and within minutes, I found what I'd been looking for.
It was a thin manila envelope. Ashley was scribbled across the front.
I unclasped it, pulling out the contents: a sheet of paper and a CD.
From the book Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Copyright 2013 by Marisha Pessl. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House and Random House Audio, imprints of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.