Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz

Brooding, atmospheric, and with the feel of film noir threading its pages, Manuel Munoz's novel What You See in the Dark is unlike my normal reads, edging close to claustrophobia and hinting of menace. A multi-stranded narrative weaving the tale of a solitary, poor girl, Teresa, and her developing relationship with the town's golden boy, with the spare and unfulfilling, disappearing and seemingly irrelevant life of his mother Mrs. Watson, and the arrival in the town of Bakersfield of a famous Actress and Director (Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock) as they start work on Psycho.

When the narrative focuses on Teresa and Dan, the narration is addressed to the reader as if s/he is a woman in the town whose jealousy over the developing relationship remains palpable even as she pursues her own boyfriend giving that thread of the novel a slightly prurient feel and keeping the reader distant from both Teresa and Dan themselves as characters.

The narration of Arlene Watson's portion of the novel focuses on her feelings, her past and the way in which life has passed her by, leaving her invisible and unable to grasp life and accept the future. There is a resigned inevitability to her character and to her life that bows her head and weighs down her shoulders, manifesting in the story of her abandonment by her husband and in the way in which she cannot see that the motel she owns is going to be obsolete, lonely, and as empty as her bitter life once the new freeway bypasses it.

The portions of the novel concentrating on the Actress and Director take their lead from the reality of movie making. There are technical bits, concerns over character motivation, and the delicate work of creating realistic artifice. The Actress wonders about her role and the trajectory of her career. The Director, exacting and controlled, looks to create art, pushing the boundaries of reality in film only to come up short against these exponentially expanded boundaries in the future.

As all three of the parallel stories wind together, there is a terrifying inevitability and a hopelessness that pervades the novel and the shocking act of violence at its core is neither unexpected nor anticipated. The writing is visually rich and symbolic. Munoz keeps a steady tension throughout the novel, slowly pulling back the shower curtain to show the blood mixing with water and swirling down the drain, disappearing. Quietly desperate and terrible, this forbidding and complex novel tapers off in the end neither embracing the change coming nor eschewing it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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