What You See in the Dark
Reviewed by Belinda Acosta, Fri., March 25, 2011
What You See in the Darkby Manuel Muñoz
Algonquin Books, 272 pp., $23.99
Manuel Muñoz proved he was a talented storyteller with his short-story collections Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. (The latter was short-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.) With What You See in the Dark, Muñoz shows he is also an extraordinary novelist.
Set in late 1950s Bakersfield, Calif., in the Central Valley where Muñoz grew up, What You See in the Dark focuses on three women whose paths intersect when a Hollywood film production comes to town. Aspiring singer Teresa is ostensibly the book's lead, but middle-aged waitress Arlene is the most resonant character; Muñoz presents Arlene and her life, pocked with regrets, with plainspoken dignity. But the most intriguing of the women is the character referred to only as "the Actress." It's obvious the Actress is Janet Leigh, or rather a fictionalized version of the real-life actress who as Marion Crane came to an untimely end in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which was partially shot in Bakersfield. The Actress has achieved all the dreamy aspirations that Teresa and the young women Arlene works with pine for. She is deeply aware of how every move she makes, on- and offscreen, is interpreted. She knows she's making a film with a great director, yet she is dogged by a self-doubt that would baffle her small-town admirers.
As in much of Muñoz's work, what at first appears ordinary becomes extraordinary, a metaphor for something larger. The title itself is suggestive of the moviegoing experience – how freely and full of expectation we enter that dark space. Darkness as a motif recurs as the great unknown you "pitch yourself into," and later, into something less promising.
"I want to remind readers that books are better at haunting us than movies are," Muñoz has said of his ambitions for What You See in the Dark. "Haunting" is only the beginning of what his fine debut novel accomplishes. What You See in the Dark strikes emotional chords so deep and with such precision, it almost makes you believe you've discovered a new art form.
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