fiction / mystery

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Trying to get back into the habit! Night Film was the 6th book I’ve read so far for 2018 so I’m off to a good start! I’ve started a new page on my book list for this year so we will see how many books I end up reading.

I had read Marisha Pessl’s first book when it came out quite a few years ago and remember enjoying it and it was one of the few books my husband and I have both read. I saw this one on display at my public library I picked it up thinking maybe we’d both enjoy this one, we generally read vastly different genres and types of book.

I was so disappointed. I liked the premise a lot. Basically, it is the story of the slightly mysterious death of the daughter of a reclusive horror/shock movie director as told through the eyes of a male mid-40s disgraced investigative reporter. I thought it was odd a woman would write a male main character but he was joined by a young woman and man fairly early on although none of the book is told from their points of view.

The story is entertaining, narrative sets the tone that we are right there when they find clues and discover new information so it is like you are discovering it too. There are a lot of screenshots of websites and newspaper clips throughout the book so the “part of the team” element is quite strong. A little different but it worked for the most part. I started the book as a hardback and finished it on my Kindle and it was much easier to read these additions in the physical book.

Despite the positive bits of the book, the book was highly problematic in several ways. The main character is oddly transphobic, sexist and racist in a way that doesn’t make sense for a contemporary book and which does not inform the book in any way. It is not commented on by anyone nor does it advance the plot even to the smallest degree.

He is in his mid-40s and a well-traveled, well-educated and at one point, a celebrated globe-trotting investigative journalist. He is sort of a loser (divorced, has a daughter he rarely sees, never seems to work but has money) but I don’t get the impression he is someone we are supposed to think especially poorly of him.

He expresses revulsion at anyone who is possibly gay or transgender (or a man dressing as a woman, it isn’t clear in the book) more than once. He seems to hold women in contempt, making a lot of references to his ex-wife’s appearance and remarriage to an older, less attractive man and other odd comments about women in general. The comments were distributed unevenly throughout the book so there would be dozens of pages where he seemed like a regular, normal, not horrible person then all of the sudden, you’d get to a part where he is in Chinatown and there are pages of racism. A reference to steamed buns and sesame chicken being made of cat?!? An elderly woman is referred to as having feet that look like bricks from the Great Wall. A postcard is said to be of a “Korean” versus a “Korean woman”, completely dehumanizing the woman who appears to be a sex worker of some kind and the picture has nothing to do with the story (clearly, it is never a clue) so why was it included? No idea.

He never once gets called out for any of these comments or thoughts so we are left thinking the author just thinks like this.  Where is her editor? Guess they think like this too.

The racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia was never addressed, didn’t advance the plot. It wasn’t just in his personal thoughts either. Quite a bit of the casual racism is in the prose, not his internal monologue or dialogue so it was especially unnecessary. The side characters were all stereotypes too–the weed smoking Jamaican cab driver, the single Mexican character was a human trafficker, there was a superstitious Spanish speaking maid.

It really is a shame because it could have been an excellent book. The parts about the movies and the reclusive director were mostly well thought out and clever.

I posted these thoughts to Goodreads and got a couple “does everything have to be PC?”, “He is a middle-aged man”,  “it wasn’t the focal point of the story” comments. One, I thinking complaining about everything being PC is just code for “but I want to be as racist as I want and not be called out for it” and while technically I guess 43 is middle-aged, it isn’t as if he grew up in the dark ages, he grew up in the 1970s and ’80s and would have been in college in the 1990s. And no, racism, sexism and other minority-rights issues were not what the book was about but casual racism is just as bad. Coded language and outright mockery of non-white and/or non-male characters were rampant in this book. It needs to be called out.

Crossing her off my list forever and shame on the dozens of mainstream publications that did not mention any of this in their reviews.

I would say that a woman author should know better but considering what white women have been doing lately, I’m not surprised.

I found this review on a blog that has some exact quotes from the book that illustrate what I am talking about here.

Also, she italicized so many pointless words and phrases I took note thinking it was some sort of a code but, alas it was not. The book has about three endings which was a little odd but they all mostly made sense and wrapped up the book fine.

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