Wednesday, July 6, 2011

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

What You See in the DarkWhat You See in the Dark, the debut novel by Manuel Muñoz (Faith Healer of Olive Street), takes an unlikely subject, the making of an iconic Hollywood film classic, and wraps it around a story of murder, love, and obsession.

It's 1959, Bakersfield, California. A murder has taken place. A young woman, Teresa, is brutally beaten in the stairway outside her apartment. The perpetrator is her boyfriend, Dan. These particulars set the story in motion. While What You See in the Dark takes its cues from film noir, it is much more than that. It is a mediation on death. It is also about film, and the hold it has on our collective imagination to portray on the silver screen our deepest desires and fears.

What You See in the Dark is told through four voices: Teresa, a shoe sales clerk with ambitions of becoming a singer; Arlene Watson, Dan's mother, who is also a waitress and motel-owner biding her time in Bakersfield following her husband's abandonment; the Actress who comes to Bakersfield to shoot principal photography on the movie that will become Psycho, a movie that will not only launch itself into the nightmares of countless film goers, but also change everything we know about film; and one of Theresa's co-workers at the shoe store, who tries to bring some perspective into her senseless death.

The women have few interactions, if at all, but they are nonetheless affected by one another and the paths each take. Teresa Garza is a young, restless Mexican woman who begins a relationship with a migrant worker who teaches her to play guitar. Yet it is Dan Watson, one of Bakersfield's most desirable young men, who captures her heart. They begin a doomed relationship, both on the stage where he asks her to perform with him and in bed. After the murder, Dan runs away and the migrant worker is deported, but the affect that all three will have on Bakersfield stains the town, even long after the people who live there move on.

Arlene bears the burden of what her son has done. But she has carried a lot of bad memories through her life. She isn't thrilled about her son's relationship with Teresa or his crime, but she is as resigned to it as she is resigned to the fact that she is a waitress and the owner of a motel doomed by the construction of a new highway that will lead away what little customers she has left. She is mystified by the younger waitresses at the diner who are fascinated by the movie stars in Look and Life magazines, whose lives of glamor and excitement are only a stone's throw away in Los Angeles. But Arlene is as swept up by such excitement when the Actress arrives with her driver. Arlene recognizes her, but the Actress denies who she is, a fact which later upsets Arlene when the Actress and the Director show up at her motel. The exterior of that motel will become famously enshrined in their film.

While Teresa dreams of a better life and Arlene is resigned to the one she has, the Actress has the life that is the stuff of fantasy, and yet she is unsettled with insecurity and ambivalence. The Hollywood she has grown used to will soon fall by the wayside, a victim to the European style of auteur filmmaking that will push envelopes and liberate film from its rigid, censorious past. She is a part of that past, and knows that if her career is to survive she will have to change with the times. The Actress is like a lot of Americans during the 1960s, seeing the tides of change sweeping at its shores and aware that if she does not ride along its waves she will drown in the undertow.

Muñoz's story is both quiet and unsettling in the way it reveals how change comes to certain areas of the country---not like a flood but more like a trickle. It is the building of a new highway, creating opportunities even as it destroys others. It is how a movie whose graphic depiction of nudity and violence for its time becomes an unlikely trendsetter. It is the murder of a girl whose death signals the ending of one era and the start of another. Teresa's murder is never depicted. As the story moves forward, this absence intensifies the expectation. This is not a failing, but rather an indication of Muñoz's mastery of manipulation (not unlike the master of manipulation himself, Alfred Hitchcock). He allows the reader's imagination to take over, just as Hitchcock allows his audience's imagination to run wild when the second murder occurs in his lesser known film, Frenzy (Muñoz mentions this scene as a reference point in his novel). Muñoz makes the point, as Hitchcock might, that now that the curtains have been thrown back, and we are able to see death graphically on screen or on the pages, it is time to pull them back firmly in place. There is a time and place, but the imagination will ultimately hold sway, the way the eye will actually perceive the knife cutting flesh, even when we know it is all an illusion.

Muñoz ably juggles his numerous themes in an understated way. He creates a mood and tone that beautifully captures small town life in southern California. He also does a superb job of capturing the unique experience of watching a film, whether it is being shot or shown on a screen. This is his take on Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene in Psycho:

A silhouette in women's clothes, and a big butcher knife. Any knife will do in real life---a pocket blade in a street corner mugging, a sharpened screwdriver in a jail cell. But this was the movies and it had to be a butcher knife.

The knife came at her like a tiger's paw reaching through a cage, not able to strike, but the illusion was the same.

The silhouette was (or wasn't) a Las Vegas breast.

From overhead, it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.

More screaming.
Keep your face in the water. It will force you to shut your eyes.

We go to the movies because movies are meant to be safe. They allow us to experience our deepest fantasies without ridicule; to explore our fears without harm; to express our thoughts without censor. Psycho opened a way for filmmakers to push the envelope and make cinema more daring. Yet, as Muñoz's novel reveals, the way toward those changes often involves a bit of violence. Tightly written and sharply observed, What You See in the Dark is an auspicious debut of a very talented writer.