I wanted to love Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, especially after thoroughly enjoying his earlier work Zigzagger, but I finished the novel wanting more. This is not to say that it isn’t a compelling read; I just think that the book thinks it is better than it actually is. It really gives off that vibe.
I added this to my summer reading list after seeing a conference presentation last spring that dealt with the cinematic aspects of the novel (honestly, the best aspect of the work). Little did I know that my Intel would tell me that the book will appear on one of my fall semester syllabuses (US Hispanic Feminism mas o menos). So I’m at least a little ahead of my reading for the upcoming semester. Score one for me.
What You See in the Dark is quite cinematic in nature and feels like an ode to the black-and-white era of Hollywood. Set in Bakersfield, the novel follows the Actress (Janet Leigh) and the Director (Alfred Hitchcock) as they film Pyscho. That provides half of the novel’s plot and proves to be the more compelling and engaging of the two narratives. The other story deals with a murder in the town that unfolds similarly to Psycho. I didn’t particularly care for the townspeople or their plight. To me, the bits about the Actress were the highlight. Muñoz is able to masterfully capture her feelings in and out of the film business. We see her internal struggle with her huge celebrity status and we are first-hand witnesses to her inner dialogue while filming Pyscho leading up to her preparations for the big shower scene, arguably the most famous scene in film history. Similarly to Zigzagger, Muñoz is able to properly convey the feelings, sentiments, and struggles of largely minority groups: women (even the Actress is underprivileged compared to her male counterparts), homosexuals, the poor, and Latin@s (and sometimes a combination of the categories – extra marginalization).
Regardless of how I feel about the novel itself, I do love the title – What You See in the Dark. Paired alongside the tragic looking woman on the green cover and we have a winning design. It made me more interested to read it. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the novel is quite cinematic in style and even content. The reader essentially becomes a voyeur into the lives of the Actress and the community of Bakersfield, CA. Charles Taylor proposes that “Psycho was the first film to suggest that what we saw in the dark, saw us.” This truly captures the essence of the novel. The reader is forced to consider the role he/she plays as a voyeur into these people’s lives. The townspeople notice every little thing that happens in public; nothing is secret or safe. Each character – Dan, Candy, Teresa, Arlene – is being watched by someone and we watch them. When Teresa hides the stolen shoes in the alley behind her work, Muñoz paints the scene in such a way that makes the reader feel like they are lurking around the corner, spying on her.
Essentially, Hitchcock’s film bleeds into the plot of the novel – a good employee steals something impulsively; a young woman is murdered; the son smothered by his mother; the slowly dying roadside motel. Nevertheless, Muñoz demonstrates how art bleeds into life more so with the way everyday life is changed by these actions. Just as Pyscho changed cinema (the star is killed early in the film, they show a toilet, that shower scene!), the murder and looming change in American cultural values will change Bakersfield as well.
I’d recommend What You See in the Dark if you’re looking for something different or something with a cinematic flair. It’s an engaging read. I think I just expected or wanted more from it. I wanted to love it, but I just liked it. Either way, I am definitely keeping an eye on Manuel Muñoz. Like I’ve said, Zigzagger was one of my favorite books from this summer. The man knows how to write. I’d also like to point out that Muñoz doesn’t rely on a publisher that caters to Hispanic writers. This is quite impressive given how difficult it is for Hispanic writers to get published by more “mainstream” publishing houses. Hopefully, we will see more of this in the future. In the meantime, we thankfully have Arte Público Press!