— Peter Kreutzer (@kroyte) January 14, 2014
Celeste is a beautiful and wealthy young woman married to an heir to a great fortune who takes a job as an eighth grade English teacher because she has an unholy fetish for 14 year old boys. Needless to say, I hope, this is a story of Florida.
Nutting tells this story with velocity and with a fairly pornographic attention to detail, body parts and various fluids at least (oh, and the odors), but it is not at all realistic. Celeste is our narrator, tells her story with a psychopathic attention to her needs and motivations, and while she is aware of the difference between right and wrong, she filters that through her incessant need to stoke her sexual desire. Even though it’s wrong, and she knows that, she also knows that she can’t stop. Her needs are a part of her, and impossible not to pursue.
There are models for this sort of story. Celeste’s planning, her grooming and her seduction of her first boy, Jack, is told with florid, meticulous detail. Like Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert, Celeste’s narration of the story is a sales pitch and justification for her actions. Like JG Ballard’s Crash, Celeste’s desire is perverse and obsessive and relentless. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the first person narrator’s lack of moral objectivity is kind of thrilling. But there are differences, too.
Unlike Ellis, Nutting doesn’t seem to have a taste for grandiose satire. Her grotesques are small and acutely drawn, but don’t resonate across a bigger stage. Similarly, her ambitions are not nearly as large as Nabokov’s. This is a small story, grander because it doesn’t try to present any psychological rationale for our narrator’s obsession, but in the end it is a story that takes place in a nondescript American suburb that just happens to be in west Florida. (Based on a true story, at least in part, too.) And while Nutting’s sex scenes are very specific, they don’t approach Ballard’s obsessive attention to the most every detail in Crash. They are not about the larger machinery, the way the body melds into the modern technological world, but rather about the specific claims the body has on us as we dream, sometimes, of a larger world than ourselves. And one woman’s insistence none of that matters.
Celeste is an English teacher, and her class reads four books during the course of the novel. Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Each connects to the plot in some way, especially as a device for Celeste to talk to her young (14 years old) students in a mature way, about relationships and the possibility of sex, which excites them. But the novel undercuts these scenes by continually reminding us that Celeste has no vocation for teaching. What passion she brings is in pursuit of young, taut flesh that won’t tell. She really doesn’t otherwise care.
So this is a small, well told story about an explosive topic told in an explosive way. If you were to read it just for the sex scenes you’d cover most of the book, quickly and without regret. If you were to read it for the relentless horror, the way you might watch an episode of the Walking Dead, you won’t be disappointed either, though the amount of blood spilled is considerably less. But if you were to read it as a social satire I’m not sure you would wind up where you want to be. The elements are all there, some of the set pieces (one toward the end, especially, which is spectacularly pungent and hugely underplayed), end up being so low key it’s hard to tell what Nutting’s motivation is. Is this To Die For? Or something more.
My sense is she knows the story plays more sympathetically with the slighter scope. Her target isn’t as big as Ellis’s, the heart and loins are beggared by financial greed, and so she keeps is simpler. But she hits enough of the sweet spots, with enough gusto, that this small story starts to feel larger and larger as you think it through. Certainly a book that must be read by all Floridians.
Adam Magyar shoots 50 FPS video of the people standing on the platform from the train as it makes its way into the station. He then slows it down, so that just a fraction of a second of real time becomes seconds. The tracking effect of the moving train is real, but the people seem frozen, stilled in time. The effect is ghostly and voyeuristic. See for yourself.
Last year I read Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which was an extremely weird story of special high school students (they made me think of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” only younger) and a dark political conspiracy that binds them before it sends them asunder.
What was great about Calamity Physics and the reason I read to the end was Pessl’s aggressive and energetic use of language and metaphor, which were far more powerful than any characterization or storytelling. But they were enough.
“Night Film” is a similar story of paranoid secrets and clandestine uncovering, and suffers from similar astoundingly large lapses in credibility and continuity. But it is in large part saved again by Pessl’s abundantly generous prose.
It doesn’t hurt that the setup, an investigation into the secret life of a film director of dark intentions and hugely successful evocations of the dark arts, is colorfully rendered. In the course of the novel we get tantalizing plot summaries of most if not all of Stanislav Cordova’s 10 films, which are rather implausibly so successful that the latter of them can only be shown in clandestine exhibitions known only to aficionados in such venues as abandoned subway stations. Surprisingly, all of that works.
Less successful are the voices and motivations of the three main characters, who are implausibly thrown together, and then end up bound (at least as long as it is convenient) through thick and thin (though each conveniently exits when the story cannot sustain them). Certainly not enough happens between them to warrant much conversation, except exposition, and the de rigueur banter of any detective novel worth it’s stripes. And as such, their’s isn’t special.
So, this detective novel does not transcend. Instead of being tightly focussed, Pessl’s awesome writing overwhelms. Where the story might call for a sentence or two she piles on the observation and metaphor, all of it gloriously entertaining (that’s why I kept reading) but at some point even my energy was sapped by the lack of focus.
Night Film, like Calamity Physics, is filled with erudition and sharp writing and extended displays of metaphoric exhibitionism. But they both lack focused storytelling. I would recommend both for the fun they offer with words, but hope that she marries that with a resonant plot and compelling characters.
This shows what he’s been up to.
This is the first post on the brand spanking new Peter Kreutzer blog. This will be the place for me to link to my doings in other places, plus the site for self-published pieces that don’t belong anyplace else.
Thanks for visiting.
My aunt Dottie and Uncle Henry took me on a trip to Washington D.C. in 1964, with my cousins Kim, Karen and Steven. We visited the FBI, the Capitol (where I met Senator Jacob Javits), the Lincoln Memorial, and no doubt other hotspots.
We stayed in the Warwick, a venerable old hotel, and I marvelled that I could leave my coins on the sidetable all day and the room would be cleaned and they wouldn’t be taken.
I wrote a postcard, apparently at first intended for my grandparents, but then cleverly made suitable for my parents, about our visit to Arlington Cemetery. Spelling is not great, but cute.