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The Great Internet Novel Is Coming — But It Isn’t Marisha Pessl’s ‘Night Film’

Marisha Pessl’s new novel, Night Film, is out today. Pessl is the much-admired author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a literary debut that everyone loved, and I enjoyed too, when it appeared in 2007. I did not like this new book, and for many days I’ve been puzzling over how to explain why. Night Film is a mystery book, almost deliberately structured as a puzzle. Which means that telling you very much about the book would unravel its appeal for those of you who are, unlike me, destined to enjoy it. Yet I don’t seem to need to spoil you to raise some questions about this bizarre little literary novel. Because it’s not actually the plot that bothers me, nor the characterization, what little there is to speak of. Nor is it even the prose, though I think some of her metaphors are better termed record-scratches.

No, it’s the multimedia that bothers me. And that, by the end of the book, had so thoroughly ruined the reading experience for me that it feels almost unfair for me to evaluate the rest on the strength of it. It’s not so much that I object to the technique as I resent the careless way in which it’s used. And by midway through the book, I found myself paradoxically yearning for a much better, more engaged novelist to try this out.

There are those who would complain about the pollution of “the novel” with this sort of thing, but I’m truly not one of them. I’m open to experiments with form. I was once a skeptic of graphic novels, and then a good friend lent me the work of Joe Sacco. Upon perusing just a few pages of that, I caved, and I have never again sullied the good name of any comic without trying it first. I will read your novel even if you decide to question the linear nature of time and the convention of a satisfying ending. I will read your attempt to make a much-dissed genre — mystery, horror, film novelization — truly literary and deep. Or rather: I’ll try to read it.

And using collage in a mystery story isn’t that weird of a choice, after all. The fake web pages and magazine articles and faux candids are all included by way of clues to the real fate of a young woman whose suicide is at the center of Pessl’s story. And were this a modern, real-world mystery, piecing together clues from wayward Internet posts is exactly what journalists (and the totally obsessed) would be doing. The late-night Wikipedia/Google spiral is a close and cherished friend of mine; I can say that at least.

But the particular way Pessl’s photographs are shot and the pages are laid out — one shows search results as being sort of like a slideshow that you click through — suggests a certain carelessness of composition, almost like she’d never actually had the experience of losing herself in the Internet flotsam of someone’s life. It goes beyond laziness, too, though: something in them seems to be looking at the very thing they seek to depict — young, attractive women taking selfies, Internet commenters, message boards — without really seeing that thing for what it is. So opportunities are missed. The narrator tells you the picture looks like “the face of death” and you flip the page to find yourself expected to accept this description of a constipated-looking model sitting at a picnic table.

Janet Maslin, in The New York Times the other day, called Pessl out on a related crime, saying she had a “tin ear.” But what I think this is is a tin eye. She’s either not observing her subject very closely, or observing the wrong things entirely. Which starts to leak into the prose, too. When the narrator writes of “setting up a post” on the Internet or “like and dislike” buttons, it’s a signal that the author herself is not online much — which means that this novel’s attempts to mimic certain Internet effects are, at best, half-assed.

So what? Some people might say it’s impossible to write fiction about the Internet. I had a journalism professor who kept insisting you couldn’t reasonably report on it, that it was too difficult to describe the Internet in prose. But I’m not so sure on that point, not least because some of the Internet hoaxes and flame wars are so strange and intriguing that I’m not sure you can make this stuff up. People like Adrian Chen, at Gawker, are actually pretty damn good at telling the tales, too.

Plus, as I said, there is a legitimate phenomenon here worth exploring, something in the way that we now approach crime narratives by way of cobbling web bits together. Most often we talk about this in those moments when hobbyists all over the Internet try to piece together the evidence when news is breaking. Pundits have written a great many books on the ills of the Internet, but every time they begin to natter on about the power of Reddit to make news, I wonder if they really think of Reddit as a force independent of the curiosity of the people posting on it. For some reason we’re many of us addicted to the prurient detail, the last revealing blog posting of the serial killer, and Tsarnaev’s status updates on Twitter.

And this phenomenon, I would argue, is ripe for fiction because the Internet isn’t at all the kind of scientific paradise of hard evidence that people once hoped it might be. The Internet isn’t a lovely collective filter that sifts out the good from the bad. Instead, like any bit of collective storytelling, it loops in and out and back around on itself. The collection of evidence always spirals beyond control. And all the hope we had for facts delivering meaning in and of themselves has been shattered. We saw it in Newtown, and we saw it in the Boston Marathon bombing. Even in the face of endless information, people get stuck on red herrings, trip over fakers and conspiracy theorists. They would rather stick to their prescribed narratives, having already decided who’s guilty even before they start to look, on the Internet, for “the truth.” The turn to the terribly imperfect online space for answers to the unanswerable is part of what our collective human experience is about, these days. For better or for worse.

Somewhere in America is someone who takes that seriously enough to write about it. To write about the way people get fevered and excited and thrilled at the chance to solve a mystery at a cubicle desk. To explain the seductive power of the suggestion of a role to play in something larger than yourself. To understand the way good intentions get documented in real time, and then fall apart totally. This person who is interested, I think, could construct greatness from that material. They could write the Great Internet Novel. But until they do, and someone comes up with a real way of describing the strange collective dynamic of this ridiculous, heartbreaking, and often amazing place I’d advise authors like Pessl to steer clear of replicas like hers. Even on the Internet, it’s sometimes true that you just have to actually be there to understand.