Manuel Muñoz’s subtle and skillful novel What You See in the Dark uses Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho as a jumping off point to explore ideas of voyeurism, truth and self-awareness.
Set in Bakersfield in 1959, What You See in the Dark explores the ramifications of two murders, one real and one imagined. The first is the on-screen death of Marion Crane, as played by Janet Leigh and the second is that of a young unassuming Mexican woman, Teresa Garza who works in a shoe-store in downtown Bakersfield.
The cinematic and the everyday collide when the Actress (Janet Leigh) and the Director (Alfred Hitchcock) make a brief stop in Bakersfield to film some exterior shots for Psycho. The actress and her driver stop off in the town’s café and are served by Arlene Watson, a divorced and harried middle-aged mother who also runs a motel on the outskirts of town. Arlene’s son is the handsome Dan Watson, local heartthrob and boyfriend of Teresa when she is murdered.
Throughout the book, the plot of Psycho bleeds into that of the novel – a young woman impulsively steals from her employer; a murder occurs; a mother idolises her son in a rundown roadside motel that has seen better days. In lesser hands, this conceit could come across as forced and clunky, but Muñoz keeps the connections loose and subtle and never allows his characters to fall into simple stereotypes.
The story is told from the point of view of Janet Leigh, Arlene Watson, Teresa Garza and Alfred Hitchcock and is bookended by the thoughts of Candy, who works alongside Teresa at the shoe-store.
All of these characters are living with disappointment as they face a swiftly changing world. Teresa dreams of being a singer and finding love while struggling with the fact that her mother left her to follow a man to Texas. Arlene is ashamed of the fact that her husband abandoned her and tries to ignore the building of a new freeway that will remove all passing traffic from her motel. Hitchcock and Leigh are struggling with the changes in the world of filmmaking – both aware that the rise of realism and the influence of European cinema means that they will have to adapt their style to suit changing tastes. Candy is dating a farm worker and knows her future is as a small town wife. Her fantasies about Dan Watson and her jealousy of Teresa’s growing relationship with him make her the perfect narrative voice to open and close the novel.
Voyeurism is at the heart of Psycho, the heart of cinema and at the heart of this book. Bakersfield is a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. When Teresa starts to sing at a local cantina, the townsfolk go along just to get a look at the girl who has stolen Dan Watson’s affections. After her death, women flock to the shoe store where she worked just to see if any trace of Teresa or of what happened to her can be found.
From the eyes watching the screen at the drive –in and the local theatre to the gaze of the Mexican workers that follow Teresa on her morning walk to work, the novel is full of watchers, all trying to create their own truth from a dark they cannot hope to penetrate.
He reaches over to turn the knob down on the speaker, and the movie goes mute and you watch the screen while he’s occupied, the detective at a desk saying something into a phone, how you have to guess what he’s saying, the way you have to guess at everything in life – what you see and what you make of it, what you know for sure and what you have to experience, what others tell you and what gets confirmed.
The sense of dislocation and fear of change that permeates the novel takes what is essentially a tale of a small town romance turned bad and elevates it to an exploration of the changes engulfing America in 1960. Just as Psycho upended the rules of what was to be expected in the cinema at that time, society itself was also being upended on an equally fundamental level in political and economic terms. When Arlene decides to go and see Psycho at the local movie theatre, she leaves in disgust. Not due to the manner or timing of Marion Crane’s death, but because the character is shown in her underwear. Society is changing, and Arlene does not want any part of what she sees in the dark. Candy remembers going to the movie theatre with a date and muses on the innocence of that very different time.
After all this time, this is the moment you hold and remember, down to the sweaty, nervous palm of your boyfriend: the quiet in the dark of the theater, the story coming.
Darkness used to be the delicious moment of not knowing what would come next. You don’t see things like that anymore.
Muñoz perfectly captures a moment in time that is vanishing. His characters are shadowy, lonely dreamers who can only speculate about what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future. His writing is lyrical and subtle and despite the dramatic subject matter, unassuming and thoughtful. He perfectly captures the thoughts of his characters, particularly the female ones and the central set piece exploring the infamous seven day filming of Psycho’s iconic shower scene is beautifully structured.
A lack of resolution may frustrate some readers, but What You See in the Dark is a clever and subtle novel that transcends a gimmicky premise to become a thoughtful exploration on the gulf between dream and reality and what is required of us to accept that distance.
The woman had to live before she could die. It was as simple as that. Even if it was the vulgarity of real life – the needs and the mistakes, but also the desire to correct them, the effort toward a forgiveness of herself. A woman like that. All those lonely hours. All the things people do to try to escape.
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