What You See in the Dark

By Manuel Muñoz

Algonquin Books.

272 pp. $23.95.

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Reviewed by John Shortino

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a famously unsettling film: The sudden act of violence in the first act disorients the audience, adding an undercurrent of menace to every scene that follows. Manuel Muñoz's first novel, What You See in the Dark, takes a cue from Hitchcock's film, with a dark twist early in the book that adds a layer of dread and impending violence to the stories of four women in the town of Bakersfield, Calif., where scenes from Psycho are being filmed.

Muñoz, whose two previous books (The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue and Zigzagger) were short-story collections, divides the novel among five points of view, a structure that makes each chapter work as a discrete piece focused on a different view of the relationship between two Bakersfield locals, Dan Watson and Teresa Garza.

Janet Leigh is never mentioned, but she appears both as a character (referred to only as "The Actress") and as a symbol of the women who left their small towns for Hollywood, longing for fame and fortune. Through The Actress, Muñoz explores how the reality of escaping to Hollywood is not as glamorous as the Bakersfield girls believe: Even as The Actress prepares for her iconic role, she wishes for time to raise her children, the quieter life she might have had if she had stayed in Fresno.

While The Actress only passes through town, the other women in the novel are stuck: Arlene, a middle-aged waitress running a failing motel; Candy, a jealous shoe-store clerk; and Teresa, who sees Arlene's son Dan as her chance to escape.

Muñoz opens and closes the novel with Candy's chapters, told in the second person. The voice is instantly engaging, although at times she can come across as too cold and distant. Through the opening chapter, the novel sweeps from a Bakersfield drive-in to the cantina where Teresa and Dan sing, Candy's jealousy growing even as she begins to date a different boy.

It's an ambitious opening, and when it works, it reads like a literary version of a cinematic long take, sweeping across multiple characters and settings to look at not only the relationship, but also the changing town of Bakersfield in the early 1960s.

Even more so in Arlene's chapters, where construction of the freeway threatens to drive business away from the motel her husband left her with before running off. Arlene is one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel, her chapters concerned with both the decline of her business and the rut she feels her personal life is running in.

Everything is changing, and she feels left behind: "She worked in a café that had nowhere to go but into decline. The motel, in the end, was housing a pregnant girl or two, and there wasn't much she could ever hope for in selling it."

The love affair between Teresa and Dan, and the consequences of its ending, make up the bulk of the novel, though there are only a few chapters told from Teresa's point of view. Like Arlene, Teresa has been abandoned, her mother moving to Texas to be with the man she loves.

For a character so central to the plot, Teresa can seem a bit flat, but the writing in these sections is excellent, repeating certain images (a fluttering curtain, the green door to Teresa's apartment, the violet light coming in from the street) that recur throughout the novel, transforming them into symbols of love, longing, and the doomed affair itself.

If there is one piece of the novel that doesn't seem to fit with the rest, it is the penultimate chapter, the only one to take us into the mind of Hitchcock ("The Director"). It occurs years after the filming of Psycho, just after the Cannes release of Frenzy, and reads like a film history lesson, summarizing the shifts that occurred in the industry in the late 1960s and early '70s.

There is an excellent moment in this chapter, however, when The Director thinks about onscreen violence, and about his own ability to suggest violence rather than show it: "The audience knew what was going to happen in that room, but the camera stopped on the landing. It stopped on the landing and watched the woman enter, the killer following behind."

The last chapter switches back to Candy, once again shifting the timeline to show the end of Dan and Teresa's relationship, along with Candy's engagement to a local young man. In the last pages, Muñoz begins to cross-cut rapidly between Candy on a date and the scene she imagines between Dan and Teresa, the foreshadowed violence occurring in quick, imagined strokes.

Muñoz does not provide every detail during the final scene, and in this, he demonstrates his mastery of Hitchcock's technique: By giving us just enough detail, what we imagine becomes much more brutal and horrific than any graphic description could ever be.