Pocket Review: What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz

What You See in the Dark
Manuel Muñoz
Algonquin, 2011

When I think of classic films, diners and Bakersfield, California at the same time, the first thing that comes to mind is Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. But though this debut novel is deeply interested in the reverberations of the cinema—and the cinematic—on small town life, Manuel Muñoz has a very different agenda.

What You See in the Dark opens, appropriately enough, with a quietly voyeuristic second-person snapshot of late-1950s Bakersfield: a sleepy, midsize community with a downtown of small stores, a café, a drive-in, the Jolly-Kone hamburger stand. Further out of town lie the motels where truckers stop off and a string of small bars and nightclubs frequented by the town’s Mexican community. Patsy Cline is on the jukebox, and Rick Nelson, and the town’s most eligible young man has started going out with the quiet Mexican girl who works at the shoe store, and then one December evening she is murdered. The observer here isn’t identified, but for the purposes of this story that’s not important—it’s what she’s watching that counts. After that opening chapter the novel unfolds in a rotating series of third-person points of view, and the story of Bakersfield, its residents and passers-through, and the girl’s death are gradually revealed.

This narrative setup, of the viewer introducing a panoramic story, is quite deliberate. Muñoz’s novel is a very carefully crafted homage to film in general, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in particular. One of the cast of characters, whom we meet early on, is simply identified as the Actress. But as her account unfolds, describing her drive into the city to meet the Director—another of the book’s players—and film a brief location shot, it becomes clear that this is Janet Leigh, and the Director is Hitchcock. Her own concerns, about her craft and the choices she’s making in her work, are in a way not so different from those of a promising young man, an older waitress struggling to keep her ex-husband’s motel afloat, or a young woman working in a shoe store. And so the Actress’ hopes and fears are projected onto those of the local players—handsome Dan Watson, his mother Arlene, who works in the café and owns Watson’s Inn, and unassuming Teresa Garza, who lives over the bowling alley and dreams of better things.

The term “projected” is intentional here. Not only is the novel a tribute to the movies, it’s written in a deliberately filmic style, shifting between viewpoints and settings almost as if it had been storyboarded. Angles are often as explicitly defined as if they were to be shot; even when we’re granted access to a character’s inner life, the accompanying visual cues are always in sharper focus, and the implied viewer is never far from the action. Consider the long night Arlene spends after the murder, when Dan has come home, shed his bloody clothes, and taken her car. She stays awake, knowing that the police will be there in the morning, reflecting on her life and what will come next:

[S]he turned out the living room light, one window going dark, signifying motion to anyone who might be looking. But no one was looking. She knew this now. It was well past midnight and anyone still awake would be only half so, nodded off in front of the buzz and static of a television set, the local stations not able to fill insomnia’s empty hours. There was no need to be nervous, but she remained so as she walked into the kitchen, filling a teapot with water and setting it to boil so she could ward off the chill of having been outside, wondering if her silhouette appeared in the windows, a ghostly form to an onlooker from the road. The ugly feeling was unshakable, that sense of being watched. Arlene reached over and turned out the kitchen light, one more light extinguished in the house, leaving her alone with only the blue flame of the stove, startlingly bright.

The action is far more cinematic than internal, which gives it a flattish affect similar to film, and at the same time tells us everything we need to know—more evidence of the book’s reverence for the medium, and what it can accomplish in the space between the screen and the moviegoer’s mind. In What You See in the Dark, light and gestures are magnified. Everything we need to know, Muñoz reminds us, is there if we just watch for it: the way the Dan and Teresa stand on stage when he plays guitar and she sings and how he motions her into the spotlight; the shadowed couples in truck cabs at the drive-in; the small gifts Teresa’s admirer, Cheno, offers up: “candy bars and fresh peaches and cans of Kern’s nectar and dried apricots and shelled walnuts packed into an empty Gerber baby-food jar.”

That kind of physical information, which moves the action, is also very much the book’s subject. The Actress spends much of the time we’re with her musing on her work in general and the film she’s working on specifically, and over lunch with the Director she is attentive as he spells out his credo:

“You know, it pleases me quite a bit to hear you talk about light.”
“Light?”
“The quality of the sunlight. Explaining to your driver why we absolutely need to shoot in the morning to keep to the script.”
“I think you may have mentioned that to me at one point. Something about the angle of the sun in the sky and the shadows.”
“Precisely. Some people are quite discerning when it comes to natural light. They have an eye for it. They seek continuity.”

And eventually we see his points proven in a fascinating recreation of the shooting of Psycho’s shower scene. Still, the bits of moviemaking and auteur theory end up being something of a distraction, no matter how well they throw the story into profile. The Actress is ambitious as an artist, less so as a celebrity, and her run-ins with the Bakersfield residents—Arlene in particular—are not particularly glamorous. But they’re also where the novel shines. The real-life dramas of a suitor’s spurning, a young woman’s murder, and a mother’s loss of her son give lie to our sense of scale when confronted with that alternate to reality, the movies. One is called big screen, the other small town—but the degree to which we believe in those adjectives has everything to do with our complicity.

In the end it’s a simple story: A girl dies, a mother mourns, an Actress becomes a Star. What’s surprising is how Muñoz manages to turn the tables on us. Light and gesture, as it so happens, tell us nothing. People grow old and carry their secrets with them, and there is no cinematic trick in the world that can reveal them. In the final chapter the watchful narrator returns, closer to the action than she was before but clearly none the wiser:

Many months from now—months—people will file into the Fox Theater to watch the suspense picture, the one with a motel, that one that looks just like the one out on the west of town, and everyone will see a dark silhouette get up and walk away in a pinched, furious manner.

You will be there and will see only a dark silhouette, but you’ll believe those people when they claim it was Dan Watson’s mother. She saw what was coming up on-screen. Who—who on earth—ever wants to put themselves in someone else’s shoes? To see something so close to them?

And thus Muñoz answers his own question: What you see in the dark is what you want to see, nothing more. There are those who would try to manipulate that, and those who become famous for it. But ultimately we all carry our own lives into that dark theater, and we walk out with them too.

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