In Manuel Muñoz‘s entrancing first novel What You See in the Dark (Algonquin Books, 251 pages, $23.95), a character called The Director, based on Alfred Hitchcock, observes, “Small towns are filled with people who notice every little detail.” Muñoz, who teaches at the University of Arizona, has paid utmost attention to detail in this novel that reimagines the filming of Psycho in the sleepy town of Bakersfield, California in 1960. Muñoz sets the filming of that classic movie against the murder of a young woman that occurs at the same time.
Muñoz writes with exquisite control of atmosphere, mood, perspective, and image—not unlike Hitchcock’s technique—as he builds the moving story of the murder of Teresa, a young Mexican woman, at the hands of her white lover. The narrative switches between several perspectives, beginning with a skillful second-person collective voice that we come to learn speaks for the town of Bakersfield in 1960 as a whole, and also for Candy, Teresa’s jealous co-worker at the shoe store.
The entire town watched with fervent interest and disbelief the development of a romance between Teresa, a quiet, petite shopgirl who lives alone, and Dan Watson, “the most handsome man in town for sure.” Dan is the son of Arlene, who owns a motel outside of town and works at the diner. In a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, the story of Teresa and Dan provides a movie-like drama for everyone to observe and gossip about. Like film stars, Teresa and Dan are the people who make other people dream, even though Muñoz shows us the entirety of their lives are not the stuff that dreams are made of.
Next we see the town through the third-person perspective of Janet Leigh, a talented, dedicated actress, a little unsure of how important her role in Hitchcock’s movie will be, since her character is to be killed before the film is halfway finished. Muñoz captures her preparation, her nervousness about meeting Hitchcock, and her hesitancy to be seen in a bad girl role, carrying on an affair and wearing nothing but a bra in several scenes, at a time when such things still shocked. Leigh, known only as “The Actress,” eats in the diner, where Dan’s mother Arlene serves her, and the Hollywood-obsessed young women who work at the diner study her. The girls pore over movie magazines and dream about the glamorous world down the road that is so removed from their existence.
Film buffs will enjoy The Actress’s sharp anaylsis of Hitchcock’s technique: “That was the way the Actress saw it anyway, mesmerized by how he was stripping out all the trappings of the industry and pushing these women toward something beyond even acting, something nakedly cinematic—postures, poses, gestures, as if the women were in magazine ads come to life for just split seconds at a time, just enough motion for the public to remember them as images and not characters.”
What You See in the Dark also includes sections from the third person perspectives of Teresa, Hitchcock (known as “The Director”), and Arlene, each constructed with utmost empathy and precision. Teresa and Arlene’s stories are equally heartbreaking. Here is how Arlene thinks of herself: “She was a waitress. She was a motel owner. She was a mother. She was an abandoned wife. She served coffee. She had a brother whom she had loved from a great distance, yet never saw again. Her name was Arlene. She served pie. Her name was Mrs. Watson. Her name was Arlene Watson before and during and after.” The Director and The Actress drive up to Arlene’s motel and observe it. The Director’s crew then reconstructs one like it on a studio lot for the Bates Motel.
Meanwhile, Teresa goes suddenly from living a lonely, almost unnoticed existence to being at the center of the town’s attentions when she starts dating Dan and performing as a singer at his restaurant. In one scene, while she completes the inventory at the shoe store, she thinks about how the town is taking her life in and judging her: “Teresa went back to her inventory. I know you, she kept hearing as she counted out pairs of sandals she remembered having ordered a year ago. I know about you, she imagined Candy saying, and there it was—just the additional word, the single key and the lock turning for a door that revealed everything about Teresa in glaring light: her father gone, her mother following, money scarce, the men below her window whistling. I know all about you, she tried, this time her own voice saying it, repeating it, as she counted out white shoes favored by the nurses at the hospitals, tasseled flats in elderly beige, pink canvas sneakers, dancing shoes with glittery straps and heels as thin as expensive vases.”
Muñoz has artfully constructed his narrative to provide a compelling story, but also to question the notion of story itself, asking, as Hitchcock did, how much violence and sex should be seen on camera or on the page, and how much should be merely suggested, allowing members of the audience to fill in the blanks with his or her own imagination. In Psycho, you never see the actual murder—you see the silhouette of a knife, hear Janet Leigh’s screams, and see the chocolate-syrup blood running down the drain of the shower.
Although What You See in the Dark includes many intriguing characters, references to film history, and a tragic doomed love story, it is also a book that is deeply about place. It’s about the town that Bakersfield was in this era, how it changed when a new highway was built, funneling business away from places like the diner and Arlene’s motel, and about the subtle racial tension that existed then as now, with Mexican day laborers gathering before dawn to seek work in the fields, the town complicit in this ritual, needing the Mexicans to fill the agricultural jobs, but also wanting them to keep to their shadowy place in the sunrise and dusk hours, out of sight. When Teresa and Dan cross the subconscious line that has been set out by the town, no one can believe it, and no one is truly surprised when it doesn’t end well. Muñoz plays all these notes with great subtlety and beauty.
What You See in the Dark is a poised and gripping novel by a writer who was awarded a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award in 2008 for promising writers at the early stages of their careers. With this novel, Muñoz has fulfilled that promise.
Manuel Muñoz will discuss What You See in the Dark at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on May 11 at 7:30 p.m.