The art of homage is an exercise in managing expectations. Inevitably damning comparisons to the original “Psycho” arguably doomed Gus Van Sant’s 1999 remake before it got a fair chance with viewers and critics—although the bizarre choice of Vince Vaughn in the role of Norman Bates probably didn’t help. How can an artist approach an acknowledged masterpiece without inviting unflattering comparisons? Better to shoot at a classic from an angle, like a good pool player. That way you can bask in its majesty without looking like a pretender to the throne.
Manuel Muñoz takes this sort of tack in his debut novel, “What You See In The Dark.” Threading a fascinating account of the making of “Psycho” through his downbeat tale of quietly desperate women in the small California town of Bakersfield, Muñoz finds something compelling to say about a film that has been endlessly analyzed and debated. Ultimately, though, his own story of small-town passion and murder pales in comparison with these cinematic interludes.
The novel revolves around the lives of four women: Teresa, a shoe-store clerk who is dating the town’s most eligible bachelor, her jealous coworker, a burnt-out waitress named Arlene, and the Actress who, while never named, must be Janet Leigh. Life is hard in Bakersfield; under the prying eyes of co-workers and townsfolk, Teresa and Arlene long for a better life, a life more like those of their screen idols. Meanwhile, the Actress and the Director (clearly Alfred Hitchcock, though much less witty than the original) scout location shots in Bakersfield for their new movie. Confronting the passive aggressive attention of the locals, the Actress is also beset with more profound worries about the character she is to play.
“What You See In The Dark” opens with Teresa’s budding romance, which is cut short by a brutal and mysterious murder that casts an ominous shadow over the rest of the novel. But Muñoz isn’t too interested in solving the crime, much less generating suspense. Since we are told about the murder in the first chapter, the interest lies in figuring out how it happened. At least, that would be the case in a traditional murder mystery; Muñoz withholds even that pleasure.
What he offers, instead, is a moody meditation on the fishbowl existence of small-town women, and more broadly on the way different perspectives can affect the stories we tell to make sense of reality. Taking a page from Elmore Leonard, Muñoz gives us the multiple viewpoints of different characters witnessing the same events, which brings out richly ironic contrasts. The Actress’ innocent luncheon with her driver at Arlene’s cafe is, for her and the other waitresses, an elicit rendezvous; but for Teresa, dreaming about her own prospects, the sight of the Actress and her driver represents the promise of a prosperous, happy marriage. Watching the beautifully dressed starlet, Teresa fantasizes about a day when there will “never be a feeling of being watched or judged; stared at in envy or suspicion or desire.” Yet we know that at that very minute, the Actress is consumed with worry about just how her performance will be judged in more ways than one: she thinks about “a whole theater full of men looking at her in her brassiere, a whole darkness wanting.”
An attentive reader, noting passages like, “There is what you see and what you make of it…what others tell you and what gets confirmed,” might guess that a traditional murder mystery “reveal” isn’t in the cards. What we’re ultimately given is quite explicitly just a story, just one woman’s subjective account of what may have happened.
It’s a gutsy authorial choice, yet plainly unsatisfying. Muñoz wants the richness of his characters to compensate for the lack of suspense or resolution, but none of these women are interesting enough to do the job. Only the Actress, with her multiple anxieties about her craft and career, has enough to think about to make her interior monologues interesting to read.
As one would imagine, the silver screen is a major motif in “What You See In The Dark,” and some of the best scenes of the novel occur in the dark of the cinema. The centerpiece of the first chapter is a wonderful description of the libidinal wonderland that is a drive-in movie, and in one of the most ironic passages, a screening of “Psycho” becomes, for Arlene, not an escape into the Hollywood dreamland that she and Teresa longed for but a shocking confrontation with her own life’s disappointments. Another high point of the novel is a retelling of “Psycho”’s most famous scene. Here Muñoz isn’t shooting for suspense, but laying bare the sequence’s sheer technical beauty. It’s an oddly thrilling passage, but it underscores the novel’s weakness: even the shower scene deconstructed is more exciting and fascinating than Muñoz’s fictional creations.
“What You See In The Dark”
By Manuel Muñoz
Algonquin Books, 272 pages, $23.95