The Short Version: After a misguided attempt to take on reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, Scott McGrath’s journalism career is verging on washed-up. But when Cordova’s daughter turns up dead several years later (an apparent suicide), McGrath gets pulled back into the strange and unsettling world of Cordova and his films – sending him on a journey that will shake the foundations of everything he believes in.
Rating: 6 out of 5. It is so rare anymore that a reader can walk into a book knowing nothing about the contents – and part of this book’s greatest pleasures came from exactly that. Thus, the break in my format. I encourage you to simply take my word that this book is an absolute delight, one that simultaneously wants to be immediately devoured and approached with lingering restraint. I cannot remember the last time I wanted so desperately to know more and all the while make sure I soaked up every single drop of one page before moving onto the next. I am tempted to pick it up again, right now, and start once more from the top. It is harrowingly intelligent and vividly realized – just close your eyes and leap in.
The Review: My imagination feels enriched and nourished after reading this book. I will talk very little about the plot or the characters – because I want people to be as unblemished as possible when they get into the story. Let me dispatch of such concerns with a quick, defacto statement: the plot is terrifically twisting, the characters unique and full of life, and there are moments that will make your heart swell and moments that will make you jump out of your skin.
I have not read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, although I’ve heard marvelous things. No idea what it’s about – but, then, I had no idea what this was about either. I had heard bits and bobs of buzz around the internet over the course of the last year or so but I didn’t really register it until, as I prepared for the BEA, I saw the book on the signings list and saw a ton of buzz about people desperate to get copies. So, I hopped in the queue and got my copy and I immediately felt… something. Curiosity, I suppose, in its strongest form.
The cover – striking and simple, with the washed-out lettering, the mysterious girl’s face, the film-emulsion bubbles and scratches. The pages – what were these darker black/gray stripes scattered throughout the ordinary white? The synopsis – simple and yet a hint of something more lurking just below the surface. And so, on a gray night with a storm brewing, I opened the book quietly during a commercial break on the Tony Awards. An hour later, I came up for air and realized that I had stumbled – quite happily and by the simplest of luck – onto an untarnished snowbank of a story. One where the author’s imagination had created an almost punchdrunk-esque experience, but packed into the pages of a book.
Several times during my experience reading this book, even long after I knew better, I found myself going to my computer to look up something. To see if I could track down some evidence that this Cordova was a real person. That these films, described just tantalizingly well-enough to make your brain scream with desire, could potentially be real. That this man who had inspired such devotion and created such horrifying and beautiful things might be out there somewhere. In the process, I managed to discover lots of other things – the “TOR” sub-internet, for example, is absolutely a real thing and whoa… – but Cordova remained just out of reach, much as he does for our hero. He’s a bit like Kubrick, a bit like Lynch, a bit like Brando, a bit like, a bit like… but he manages to remain an entirely original creation – and one our world would, I think, be all the better for having been real.
Moving on, smething about the decision to include screenshots, paper clippings, photographs, and other ephemera in this book actually worked here. So often, the inclusion of trinkets and things feels like a gimmick (see: the enjoyable, albeit completely flawed Personal Effects: Dark Art novel/failed-series-starter). J.J. Abrams is apparently doing it with his new novel and I just have the strangest feeling that it will feel corporate, sleek, and lacking in any sort of humanity. Whereas this, for whatever reason, feels organic. It feels like a part of the story – actually, that’s the best way to describe it. These pieces aren’t incidental (with one possible exception, at the end) but rather integral. They are the story as much as the regular prose – it’s just being funneled through a different medium.
But also, as a result, the book’s images seem to pop so much more vividly in my mind than nearly anything else I’ve ever read. The opening images of a red coat glimpsed under a streetlamp on a rainy evening around the Central Park reservoir, the flickering light bulb in a bathroom, the strange catacombs, the little shops and restaurants in New York City, even locations as simple as McGrath’s West Village apartment… they all feel beamed straight into my imagination, saturated like a Bryan Fuller TV show. It will come as no surprise that the book has already been optioned for film – it is tailor-made to be (potentially) one of the best thrillers since Hitchcock – but it doesn’t ever feel as though it’s just the primer for the film. Instead, it feels (when you’re reading it) as though the film is being projected inside your head as you read. I realize that this is usually what the experience of reading feels like – one’s imagination taking hold and the neurons firing to create the (when you think about it) strange and surreal sensation that you are seeing whatever you’re reading – but this is that feeling times a hundred.
The best way to describe it is (and I shake my head admiringly at Pessl for planting this claim so brazenly and then having the talent to’ve pulled it off, in regards to how a reader would experience her work) to use a quote from the book itself – a Cordova actor explaining the experience of returning to the world after working on a Cordova film:
“When you finally returned to your real life after working with Cordova, it was as if the colors had been turned way up in your eyes. The reds were redder. Blacks blacker. You felt things profoundly, as if your very heart had grown giant and tender and swollen. You dreamed. And what dreams.”
The whole thing is an experience I will not soon forget – and one I will continue to contemplate the meanings and complexities of for a long, long time. Pessl pulls off another impossible trick when she has a film buff explain how Cordova’s films “work” – and you realize, as the reader, that this is exactly what the novel is building towards. This is the arc we’ve been on and this is how this is going to go. But the minute you achieve that self-awareness, you are looking for ways for it to fail. Inevitably – that’s just human nature. But when you reach the end of the novel and – well, the best example I can give is Inception. The top is still spinning – did it wobble? Was it about to? Cordova’s films end like that, only moreso – and that’s exactly what happens here. It is sovereign, deadly, and (indeed) perfect – as all of our rarer monsters are.