On the Page: Marisha Pessl and J.M. Coetzee

night filmNight Film: A Novel

Marisha Pessl

(Random House, 624 pp., $28.00)

In Marisha Pessl’s new book, Night Film, the author has invented an entire universe of references and characters, starting with controversial and reclusive horror movie director Stanislas Cordova. His goal is to force viewers to “have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out.” The films themselves are banned, and Cordova fans share bootleg tapes and screen the movies in the underground tunnels of the subway in Paris. Is Cordova even real? There are no photographs of him, and he never leaves his vast estate in upstate New York.

The novel begins a few years after the fall from grace of Scott McGrath, a journalist whose obsession with Cordova ended his career and marriage. McGrath learns that Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, has committed suicide at the age of 24, and he tries to solve the mystery of her death. The novel veers from details of Cordova’s films to the occult, all the while circling around the inevitable visit to the Cordova estate.

Ms. Pessl has a tendency to over-italicize and over-explain, but the penultimate section of the novel is thrilling. McGrath spends a few terrifying hours in the massive soundstage where the director works. This part of the book is, to quote Cordova, “sovereign, deadly and perfect.”—Rebecca Kurson

childhood of jesusThe Childhood of Jesus

J.M. Coetzee

(Viking, 288 pp., $26.95)

J.M. Coetzee’s hypnotic new novel will be frustrating to readers who prefer their allegories clear-cut. Like his Waiting for the Barbarians, Childhood is set in a fictional environment, Novilla, where Simon, a middle-age man, and David, a five-year-old boy, have arrived after a stint at a place called Belstar. They are refugees of some kind—as is, apparently, everyone in Novilla—or at least people who have come here to start a new life. They are, in theory, cleared of their memories. Simon and David (they were given their new names when they arrived) met on the boat to Belstar. David was without his parents but had a note that was lost during the trip—”eaten by the fishes,” the boy says—and Simon, who over the course of the book becomes a kind of father to David, is determined to find David’s mother. He does, eventually, or believes he does.

The Childhood of Jesus is about many things, including the nature of the bond between a child and its parents. What to do with the book’s title? Throughout, there are strong indications that David—with his loaded name—will turn out to be a charismatic figure, one who attracts followers and attempts to save people. His inspiration, however, is by all accounts Don Quixote, a book that Simon uses to teach him to read. Simon tells the boy—significantly—it is by Benengeli, Cervantes’s fictional author of Quixote’s adventures. By the end of the book, David, like Quixote, is looking to take on a new name.—Sarah Douglas