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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '19 & Jan '20



Capturing the Droste Effect: An Analysis of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film: A Novel

R. Lakshmi Priya, Research Scholar, Bishop Heber College, Trichy

Dr. Abdul Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Associate Professor of English, Jamal Mohammed College, Trichy



            In line with the established sleuths, be it Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot the modus operandi of a contemporary detective begins in the mental arena. The major deviation occurs when the transformation of case from Mindscape to landscape can be defined as practical and goal seeking in canonical detective fiction, in contrast to the debunking of both time and space continuum in crime fiction of today, also known as anti - detective fiction. The structure of the mystery narrative has changed considerably in the past two decades with the ‘establishment’ of anti - detective fictions that operate in the level of falsified reality, or as Umberto Eco says, it can be considered a “maze”. The paper focuses on a reading of the selected novel in an anti - detective perspective. Cartographical Space, Mindscape and the Labyrinth are the major conundrums accented in the course of the anaysis .

Key Words: Whodunit, Labyrinth and Maze, Anti - Establishment, Mise-en-abyme.


          Anti - detective fiction is an interesting inversion of the detective genre of yore; it is a contemporary turn in an already existing genre and yet it strives to debunk the logic of the detective genre. Detective fiction in earlier times was known for its coherent stimulation of readers’ mind replete with clues and mind games. The interrogation as to what if the very core of detective genre, the logic and coherence is lost, is provided by the creation of Anti-detective fiction. This work of fiction is portrayed in a labyrinth like structure, where not merely the reader, but even the detective is caught in the trap. The structure of detective fiction took a turn in its nature with the advent of postmodernism, the ideology which bought in the dismantling  of meta narratives and substituted it with mini and petit narratives. The postmodern credo of debunking  canonical texts is extended to the detective genre also.  Detective fiction, which focused on real-like characters and situations took a considerable turn in this era. The movement was a deliberate change from reality, to the absurd and unreal.  Postmodern detective fiction  experimented with form (as in amalgamation of two genres), characterisation and narrative strategy. Among the many novel ventures that postmodern mystery narratives undertook, incorporation of science fiction elements into detective fiction is one. Science fiction is a genre that typically deals with time travel, technology, alternate universe and extraterrestrial life. In literature, science fiction has ushered in apocalyptic worlds, utopia, dystopia and parallel world concepts among others.

The scientific experimentation of placing two mirrors adjacent to each other to create infinite folds of the same image is called mise-en-abyme. The recursion is a mathematical and scientific approach incorporated in arts, majorly in photography. When a Dutch cocoa company displayed a nurse carrying a tray with a cup of hot chocolate and the same image on the cup and so on ad nauseam, the technique gained fame in the advertising world. Hence, it was named Droste effect, after the name of the cocoa company. In literature, the concepts of play within a play, as in Hamlet and Mid Summer nights Dream has been in vogue for a significant amount of time.

            In contemporary terminology it is simply called meta - text. When a movie deals with the making of movie, as in Fight Club, or as in Tamil movie, Kathai, Thiraikathai, vasanam, iyakkam by R. Parthiben, it is called Meta - movie. It merges the fantasy of movie, into the reality of making a movie in one plane, thus creating a break in spatiality. In writing novels, incorporation of this theme can be seen in the 2018 novel, Night Film: a Novel by Marisha Pessl. This novel takes the readers into abyss one step further by incorporating a detective story inside a meta - text. The story line follows the life of an investigative journalist, who is also the author of books like MasterCard Nation, Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry,  and Cocaine Carnivals. He takes up the identity of a detective, with the death of the daughter of his nemesis, Ashley Cordova. His arch enemy Cordova, is a director of horror movies, he is known for his secretive lifestyle, he maintains privacy of the highest order, that irks a lot of fans and journalists . On top of it, everything about his movies is scary, repulsive and yet heart wrenchingly spectacular, that makes people fall in love with his movie. Due to his immense secretiveness, his die hard fans have a secret association called Blackboards, in the secret archives of the internet. One of the fans who also happens to be a professor of film studies is the friend of the narrator, Scott McGrath. Similar to Cordova, McGrath is secretive and passionate about his works. McGrath’s dream to expose the secrets behind the works and life of Cordova in the past, leads to immense problems in his life; including being taken to  court by Cordova for defamation for which McGrath has to pay immense amount of money as penalty and compensation. Naturally it ends in divorce as his wife leaves him after taking custody of their daughter.

The death of Cordova’s daughter Ashley in a mysterious way becomes significant, as people are confused whether it is a murder or suicide. Cordova, breaking much of people’s expectation does not even make a statement about his daughter’s death.  McGrath considers this a perfect opportunity to exploit Cordova again, as he feels somehow Cordova is responsible for Ashley’s death. While in search of clues at the tatort (murder scene), McGrath comes across a young guy named Hopper, whose phone he steals on suspicion that he might be an ally in murder of Ashley. To much of McGrath’s surprise Hopper searches for McGrath and comes to his home. He reveals that he is also searching for the killers of Ashley, as she has managed to courier a stuffed toy that once belonged to a young boy, who camped along with Ashley and Hopper. McGrath finds that there is more to the story when Hopper asks to be  his assistant in uncovering the secret behind Ashley’s murder. In the process of investigation they come across a door girl, Nora to whom Ashley gave her red coat and then proceeded to commit suicide. The  girl is investigated and she joins as one of their aides  in investigation by coercion as she promises to give the red coat, if they take her as a part of their team. The trio’s adventures and horror filled path towards the truth is the rest of the story.

The novel employs pastiche, as it includes newspaper cuttings, diaries, journal reports and police FIR copy. These documents form part of the novel, and they also aid readers in understanding the story in a better light. For example,  the readers are aware of Ashley’s death even before  detective McGrath as the newspaper articles are provided for readers. After reading the articles, McGrath’s lawyer texts McGrath, who is in party to leave before journalist arrive, as they may want his opinion about Ashley death.

“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.
Call me.
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.” (57, Night Film: A novel, Marisa Pessl)

            Similarly when McGrath comes across FIR copies and other medical reports of Ashley, even readers are given the original copies for taking the investigation forward with the detective. The novel also incorporates historiographical metafiction in a beautiful fashion. For example, Cordova who is a director of movies likeTo Breathe with Kings, Thumbscrew and six other horror movies. Cordova is the winner of the Academy Award for best movie in the year 1980, much to everybody’s surprise. In reality, Robert Benton had  won the award that year for his movie, Kramer vs. Kramer ; yet in Marisha Pessl’s fictional narrative space,  he loses and  Cordova wins. This is heightened alteration of temporality, as in reality  there is no Cordova and no Thumbscrew. The wikipedia entry for the 1980 academy awards is as follows:

Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 American family courtroom drama film written and directed by Robert Benton, based on Avery Corman's novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry. It tells the story of a couple's divorce and its impact on everyone involved, including the couple's young son. […] The film received a leading nine nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards, winning the highest five : Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Leading Actor (Hoffman) and Best Supporting Actress (Streep). (Wikipedia)

            From this it is very much evident that Night Film: A NovelThe novel, plays constantly with notions of reality and surreality. The reader’s curiosity is constantly stimulated and made to falter on several occasions. Pessl deliberately constructs fictional shapes that blur the boundary between fact and fiction. In fact, the narrative consists of numerous elements that  debunk  history, cartographical space and temporality. It introduces numerous real life characters, celebrities, novels, work of art in similitude with equal amount of fictional celebrities, fictional writers and fictional works like poem, novels and even non fictional works like books of American Mask. This novel, creates a heterocosm, far away from reality; and yet  so similar to reality that it contests the readers  complacency and definitions of the real and the unreal as to whether it is true or untrue. In an example of immense significance Pessl describes a particular movie, directed by (the fictional) Cordova in which  Ashley plays the role of a small girl.  This movie is titled, To Breathe with Kings, and is an adaptation of a Dutch book, Ademen met Konnigen by August Hauer. However,  to much of readers’ disappointment there is no such novel titled Ademen met Konnigen or even a dutch writer named August Hauer. Pessl manages to create an altogether parallel cosmos along with the existing realm in her novels. This annihilation of fact and reality does not merely cease with merging fact and fiction or creating a cosmos in her novel; it invokes the creation of a parallel world in the course of novel, as in there is an existence of world inside the world of novel, thereby creating a fictional mis en abyme.

In a particular scene, during the course of the investigation, McGrath is scared that Cordova is hatching a plan to kill him. He is so caught up in the investigation that when he comes across a cigarette that Cordova uses in his movies, he is scared that he may die in the next scene as that is what happens in Cordova movie. In the movie, the  scene after the cigarette scene could always feature a death. A very confused and scared McGrath seeks the help of his friend who is a professor in film studies and has published books on Cordova.

“How do they work, exactly? Where do they appear?”
He closed his eyes. “In every story Cordova constructs, rain or shine, at least one or two, sometimes up to five of these trademarks—signatures, if you will—show up unannounced, like long lost family members on Christmas Eve. Naturally they cause a great deal of drama.”
I reached into my pocket, holding out the cigarette butts. Beckman, frowning, picked up one, scrutinizing it, and then, probably reading the brand printed by the filter, stared at me in alarm.
“Where in God’s name did you find—”
“In the country. At the scene of a house fire.”
“But they don’t exist except in a Cordova film.”
“I’m in one.”
“Excuse me?”
“I think I’m inside a Cordova film. One of his narratives. And it’s not over.” (1331, Night Film: A novel)

            This is an example of how Pessl, creates a mise - en - abyme in the course of her novel, by the  introduction of a whole universe with multiple storylines that incorporate the  character of  Cordova who is the elusive director of those stories, with that of the detective who investigates the murder of Ashley Cordova, and how he assumes that Cordova is planning to kill him, in conjunction with his movie; all by introducing  similar themes as in his movies (a mind boggling labyrinth of infinite possibilities one within the other). The Cordovites are aware of all six  major themes  in  Cardova’s  oeuvre of Cordova. The Murad cigarette, Boris the Burglar’s son, One eyed Pontiac, The peeping tom shot, the know not what and the steak tartare. These themes are always portrayed coinciding or following an important event in the film. Somehow in Pessl’s narrative , all these are incorporated into McGrath’s life too. In another situation, when McGrath is caught in the secret bungalow that Cordova owns and is the major setting of  his films, he enters numerous sets of films. He comes across the set of the church which is an important part of Cordova’s movies;  Popcorn’s house, and the house of the couple from Thumbscrew. It is here that a weird idea strikes him. In the movie Brad and Emily live peacefully till Emily suspects her husband to be a serial - killer who kills eleven year old young boys. Somehow Emily’s suspicion  becomes concretised  when she cross checks the dates of Brad’s disappearances from home to that of the children’s disappearances. To her shock, Emily finds them coinciding and finally the only way to confirm  the truth is to open her husband’s Samsonite fawn coloured brief case.  In the course of the movie she uncovers the secret password of the brief case but the audience are never told of the contents in the brief case as the movie ends without a satisfactory conclusion. However,  McGrath who is inside one of the fictional universes created Cordova takes this opportunity and opens the briefcase.  To his shock the contents of Brad’s briefcase include a  blood-soaked boys shirt soaked with blood that has turned brown. This leads him to the belief that the violence in Cordova’s films are real.

“ I found myself looking over my shoulder to the empty doorway, half wondering if I was going [….] “I grabbed the case by the handle—it was surprisingly heavy—and set it down on the bed.
I tried the latches. Locked. I realized then I knew the combination. Emily goes to great lengths to figure it out.”

Pessl’s narrative constructs a multiverse that incorporates many quantum loops that in turn create their own personal geographical spaces that invoke ambiguity in the reading process. Like a true postmodern novel, Night Film designs a maze that constantly confounds the reader. However, any analysis of the novel has to take into consideration that it is not just a postmodern text - it is also a postmodern anti-detective novel. Further analysis problematises the notion that detective fiction needs to have a finite ending with the detective achieving what he/she set out to do. Within the scope of this novel however, there is nothing  finite at all. Right from the beginning the reader is constantly reminded that it is simply the weaving of an unravelable web -  created by Pessl who creates Cordova and McGrath among other; but also inhabited by people like Robert Benton, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep who are real people. However within Pessl’s narrative boundary they become part of fiction too. In this way Pessl creates a semantic mis en abyme where for the reader there is no certainty.  While there are numerous other novels that use the technique of meta - text, Marisa Pessl has created a perfect heterocosmic mise - en - abyme that imprisons the detective who gets himself trapped in a conviction that all these multiple universes, the numerous films, the secret life of Cordova, the death of Ashley, his own life and his books exist  parallel to another.  He can never come out of this maze and never will the case be solved. It is not just the detective McGrath who is caught in this labyrinth it is also the readers, as there is  one extra mystery : as to whether what  Pessl states is the absolute   or if she is  going to again change the course of novel.



Works Cited

Fight Club. Directed by David Fincher, 20th Century Fox, 10 Sep, 1999.

Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam. Directed by R Partiban, Reeves Creations, 15 Aug, 2014

Kramer Vs. Kramer. Directed by Robert Benton, Columbia Pictures, 19 Dec, 1979.

Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoffrey Benington and Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota,  1984.

Pessl, Marisha. Night Film: A Novel. Random House, 2013

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. General Press, 2017.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Peacock, 2010.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 09 May 2019, Vs. Kramer