‘What You See in the Dark’ by Manuel Muñoz

At first glance at the dust jacket, What You See in the Dark (Algonquin) appears to be a thriller, a fact that may dissuade those readers who do not normally favour the genre. In fact, it does contain a murder, one that is, to the people of the town of Bakersfield at least, a bit of a mystery. But it’s still difficult to casually categorise Manuel Muñoz’s first novel. Mystery? Noir thriller? Romance? Literary fiction? Historical fiction? Meta-fiction? The answer, as it turns out, is all of the above. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, no need to worry. This book, with only minor exceptions, is a satisfying read, whatever your usual tastes.

Set primarily in the late 1950s in the California town of Bakersfield, the novel juxtaposes the circumstances of a small town romance that goes horribly wrong beside a fictional account of the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (part of which was filmed in Bakersfield).

That this is not a run-of-the-mill genre story is apparent from the start: an unnamed second person narrator is encountered on the first page. A second person point of view can sometimes make it difficult to suspend disbelief, but Muñoz uses it very engagingly in his first chapter. Nevertheless, many readers will still be relieved to discover that he switches to third person in chapter two and sticks to it for most of the novel.

The opening chapter largely relates the entire plot line of the Bakersfield characters, including—just as we’re coming to like them—the murder of one of the apparent main protagonists and the disappearance of the other. This sort of dramatic arc may be inconsistent with Freytag’s pyramid, but it is not unusual in a Hitchcock script, and is therefore quite appropriate. Subsequent chapters recount with greater detail roughly the same scenes from alternate perspectives, which provides the reader with strong visual images and fleshes out those characters who remain and who become, of necessity, more important.

The two narrative streams presented in alternating chapters are for the most structurally independent—the respective characters of each intersect with the others in only seemingly incidental ways. But this work is also intertextual, with the core narrative incorporating many indirect, non-parallel allusions to elements from Psycho. For instance, Arlene, a diner waitress who becomes the dominant character, also owns a twelve-room motel on the outskirts of town (where she lives with her adult son), a business that is destined to suffer with the impending construction of a new freeway.

In the Psycho narrative, Hitchcock and Janet Leigh both appear (as themselves), but Muñoz never names them, nor does he ever name the film. Rather, the characters are referred to only as “The Director” and “The Actress.” Referencing Psycho in this manner incorporates it more casually and prevents its cultural notoriety from overpowering the dominant narrative (particularly important since the characters would not then have known such notoriety). Both characters comment, primarily through their thoughts, on the changes taking place in their industry and, subsequently, in America and in themselves.

It is the subject of change that is perhaps the primary theme of this novel. As the 1960s dawned, conventional thinking about race and class, and about sexuality and morality, begin to undergo major shifts. The Actress and the waitress (Arlene) refer to these changes through their own filters, though each copes with these changes differently, in ways that are suggested by their own career identities.  Janet Leigh adapts to the new realities through action (acceptance), while Arlene is left behind due to her propensity to wait (resistance).

One need not be well acquainted with Psycho in order to enjoy Muñoz’s storytelling skills, though undoubtedly some familiarity with the film is beneficial. After reading the novel, I watched the film again (for the first time since it appeared on television in the 70s), and became much more aware of the allusions contained within the text.

The Psycho chapters seemed slightly less captivating than those about the local Bakersfield characters, particularly chapter nine, when The Actress describes, at length, the technical aspects of the filming of Psycho‘s infamous shower scene. It’s quite possible that to a devoted film geek, particularly one who is also an avid Hitchcock enthusiast, it will be as compelling a chapter as it was a scene in the film, but others prone to restlessness may be briefly tempted to skip ahead a bit.

This is a minor quibble, however. Muñoz has written a fascinating and thought-provoking novel comprised of flowing prose that is rich in detail and interesting characters, and one that will satisfy readers of diverse tastes.

What You See in the Dark
By Manuel Muñoz
Paperback, 9781565125339, 288pp.
Hardcover (March 2011); March 2012 (Paperback)