By Marisha Pessl
This author’s first work, the masterful Special Topics in Calamity Physics, concluded unexpectedly, shockingly exposing its seamy underside. In this follow-up, the seamy underside forms the foundation, the story unfolding and refolding thereafter in a kind of narrative origami. A disgraced investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, is our way into this thriller; he’s blustery, stubborn, and prone to pronouncements (though, as the print of Le Samouraï in his office attests, he wishes to model himself after invulnerable hard-boiled heroes). McGrath faces professional ignominy after a misleading source feeds him an untrue story about Stanislas Cordova, the mysterious cult filmmaker who once made several psychologically harrowing films that were banned; radio silent and allegedly locked away in an impenetrable self-constructed compound in Upstate New York, Cordova maintains his prismatic reputation: some consider him a genius; others, a sadistic puppeteer. “His energy had no bounds,” his ex-wife says. “He was Poseidon, his actors his school of minnows.” All of those actors vanished from the screen and disappeared from public, intensifying Cordova’s mystique.
When the director’s daughter Ashley dies in an apparent suicide, McGrath sees an opportunity for professional absolution, resuscitating his desire to uncover the Cordova family’s unknowns; digging headlong into the details of her death, he connects her demise to the inscrutable family from which she came. The testimonies of those who came into contact with Ashley reveal disturbing stuff; she’s a “cipher,” the reverberations of her elusive life story creating an echo chamber of sinister prospects and unsettling contradictions. Pessl allows readers to speculate on what’s credible and what’s not, which makes the book feel like a manic “choose your own adventure.” McGrath recognizes the futility of pursuing The Truth. “It was difficult to know where she ended and her illusion began,” he says of one lead—essentially describing the whole book.
McGrath’s investigation seems to lead him toward a grim and mystical revelation. But then the unveiling of a dark destiny is abruptly sideswiped with counter-information—an almost suspiciously pragmatic alternative. At this crossroads, McGrath acknowledges, “I wanted a wilder explanation for her death, something darker, bloodier, more insane.” McGrath realizes how susceptible human nature is to a good story; Stanislas Cordova’s mystique lies in mining the cachet of sensationalism.