University of Arizona creative-writing instructor Manuel Muñoz makes heavy reference to the movies in his new debut novel about love, longing and murder in the 1950s. He even writes the redoubtable Alfred Hitchcock into the text.
Press-released as if it were a film ("Horror! Mystery! Thriller!") the novel seems like an exercise in literary expansion, spinning fiction out of cinematic happenstance. The novel takes place in Bakersfield, Calif., where Janet Leigh's character finds Psycho's infamous Bates Motel. That film sequence actually served as an inspiration for Central Valley-raised Muñoz, who experienced a sudden shock of recognition and connection when he saw his own stomping grounds appear on the big screen. He writes that it made him want his art to make similar connections, to allow readers to "know what that's like."
He sets up that possibility in What You See in the Dark, as the lives of the celebrated Actress and Director intertwine with those of uncelebrated residents of dusty Bakersfield.
Muñoz asserts that literature offers more for the imagination than film does. It invites, for example, multiple, rather than single, perspectives. In What You See in the Dark, he alternates points of view throughout, opening with a Bakersfield community stand-in, an envious shoe-store clerk: "If you had been across the street, pretending to investigate the local summer roses ... you could have seen them through the café's plate glass. ... He was the most handsome man in town for sure."
By the end of that chapter, though, the girl in the café is dead, and the town's handsomest man has disappeared.
How a small community understands and remembers a bloody crime, how it deals with race and change, and how individuals adapt and are recognized and remembered—or forgotten—are among the issues the novel raises.
Featured are three female characters who have glancing relationships with each other: The Actress (otherwise unnamed); Arlene Watson, café waitress, motel-owner and mother of the handsomest man; and Teresa Garza, shop girl, aspiring singer and doomed girlfriend. Though dissimilar, they have elements in common, which Muñoz lets resonate. That The Actress is playing the part of a woman stabbed to death in a motel which looks like Arlene's place is only a taste.
Each of the women somehow garners attention. Despite once being a Central Valley girl herself, the now-successful actress nonetheless worries about her career, family and sympathetically playing a thief and adulterer who will—shockingly—be featured onscreen in only a bra. She also needs to act a convincing, spotlighted death. Shoe-shop girl Teresa dreams of becoming a singer. A bar spotlight liberates her from inhibition, and her magnetic duets (in stolen boots) with boyfriend Dan Watson give her a moment's fame. Arlene Watson's spotlight, however, as Dan's mother, is nothing she would ever wish for.
At times, the novel reads like a black-and-white movie: Props are period. Scenes are framed visually—a wide shot of a drive-in movie theater zooms in on the action in a single car; Teresa's bare room over a bowling alley; flashbacks to Arlene as a small girl standing alone in a hallway wondering about the bedroom at the end of the hall; both Teresa and The Actress in close-up performance; action in picture windows.
Muñoz infuses the visuals with character, memory and speculation. The drive-in scene, for example, is double-action—the point-of-view character is doing one thing in one vehicle as she simultaneously projects to experience what's happening in another. Arlene is both the little girl in the hallway and the exhausted middle-age woman reflecting on her. And we follow The Actress' thoughts moment by moment as she executes for cameras her fatal turn and collapse in the shower.
The book is attentive to craft in other film-like ways as well. It's diligent regarding detail. It attends to seasonal change and light quality. As in Psycho, it suggests a bloody murder without bloodying the audience. And—less successfully, unfortunately—it dispatches the girl in the first third of the book, and lets the two other characters' narratives carry the action, which then attenuates.
Overall, however, What You See in the Dark is a notable first book: It's thoughtful, informed, original and promising. It honors skilled film-making as it demonstrates skilled novel-creation.