In late 2013, I attended a reading of Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Here is my flashback for this Friday: a small review of an event I dearly enjoyed.
“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?”
I was sweating, and no one was surprised.
Lit events always incite this unsettling mixture of excitement and anxiety within me. Is it the anticipation of the author’s reading? Is it questions of whom I might run into? Maybe it’s the perpetual nagging of an inner voice whispering: ‘the author won’t even like you!’ (That’s too neurotic, right? Can’t possibly be healthy. Like, who actually cares if an author is a fan of someone they’ve never met and, likely, will never interact with? Well certainly not me and I definitely didn’t fixate on Marisha’s failure to respond to either of my tweets about her killer heels even though she’s had plenty of time and it would have meant too much to me.) Whatever the case for the bundle of nerves I’d suddenly become before entering the shop, it only magnified when Pessl approached the podium following her brief introduction by the charming host.
Common Good Books is a delightful little shop. I love that they use every inch of their space against the walls by stacking books and books up to the ceiling. There’s a calming quality to the way they case their patrons in spines and pages and words. With such a humble atmosphere, I find it baffling—even now in reflection—that Marisha Pessl’s event brought out such an initial unease. Standing off to the side, petite and sharp-featured, her presence was imposing, but didn’t dip into menacing territory. And until she stood before us and spoke, I still felt so uneasy.
I wondered then, as she made her way to the front of the small, but tightly packed crowd, if she hadn’t modeled Ashley Cordova after herself: a charismatic, poltergeistesque presence commanding the senses of the occasional passerby and engaged event attendee.
But when she said “Thanks” and “Hi”? That’s when the anxiety managed to subside. Her author photo—specifically the one that graces the back cover of her first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics—is distant, slightly aloof, and cold. But the Pessl reading from her new literary thriller, this
Her reading voice was precisely what it needed to be, exactly how I imagined it: full and loud and enigmatic, rife with urgency, and oh-so-alluring. And even though I’d finished the magnificent Night Film already, it was remarkable to hear it in the author’s voice.
It was a privilege, also, to listen to her answer questions about her work, her life, and even her fears. She was confident and engaging, and rarely—did she ever?—veered away on tangential ramblings. The audience, the quiet few and massively interested, devoured her. Every face I caught in a quiet sideways glance looked completely enticed, dangerously attentive; what a complete testament to Pessl’s ability to corral a room.
I was happy to have the last question of the night, and I thought that such a turn of events might make Pessl more likely to respond to my inquisitive and lauding tweets. Alas, she remains as hidden from my feed as Cordova himself.
As with any author event, I found myself constantly concerned with the transparency of the writer. Is this person ahead of us, speaking with such confidence and vulnerability, is she the real human being behind the book? Or is it some author persona parading a personality and demeanor?
With Pessl, I found myself indifferent to the truth. I didn’t care so much if this striking and captivating woman was an illusion. I might even prefer her completely bewitching presence to be a trick.
In Night Film she wrote: “It’s easy to be yourself in the dark.” Perhaps, under the guise of illumination, she was merely enchanting an audience that wanted to be a part of her presence. I’d wager, however, in the quiet hum of Common Good Books, we saw the real Pessl: an accomplished author who is rightfully proud of an exceptional work of fiction.