Thursday, January 10, 2013

What You See in the Dark

Having very much enjoyed Manuel Muñoz’s second collection of stories, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, several years ago (and to a slightly lesser extent his first, Zigzagger), I was eager to see what he would do with his first go at a novel. Having not read much in the way of interviews of Muñoz, I have not been sure if he really is a writer of both short and long fiction, a short story writer pushed into writing a novel because it is more “respectable,” or a novelist who was just writing some stories to get going.

That first novel appeared last year under the title What You See in the Dark, and by its form I would guess that Muñoz is a short story writer at heart. Not because it is a bad novel, which it is not, but because its success lies in the way it weaves together a series of chapters very tied to the point-of-view of different characters who tell very discrete parts of a bigger narrative. Nearly any of the chapters could easily appear on their own—and given then way literary marketing works I am surprised that an alternate version of only one of them did appear separately.

The novel tells the story of a small-town California romance gone wrong set against the backdrop of the creation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The actual work on the film is very distant in the novel, but Janet Leigh and Hitchcock both appear as focus characters for a few chapters, named only as The Actress and The Director. The novel is obsessed with what goes on off screen, not in the sense of wondering about the real lives of movie stars but investigating the stars as well as the everyday people of the town in a traditional novelistic focus on interiority. The novel works over the ways that narrative form can present interiority in a way that film cannot: the focus of Hitchcock’s movies (and it generally suggests all movies) is simply on the image rather than on the character or any sense of personhood. For example, Janet Leigh looks for ways to subvert Hitchcock’s desire that she not bring any sense of her character’s personality to the role. In some ways this is the weakest part about the novel: at times it feels a little preachy and defensive about the role of the narrative in the contemporary world. However, one thing that becomes apparent from the start is how a characters perspective, while revealing much about their own interior life, flattens out the lives of others in a way that is much like the flattening the novel attributes to the film. So in some ways the novel suggests film does the same thing we do to others in our own thought processes.

The best thing about this novel, though, is not the characterization but the way the different chapters fit together to form a plot and play with our expectations about the way suspense drives a narrative. This is one thing the novel shares with his stories—particularly the second collection—which is filled with stories where suspense leads nowhere or others with no suspense but that suddenly end packed with drama, as if the suspense had been there all along. And really, this management of expectations—setting the reader up for a certain kind of reading experience only to thwart it, but still keep the reader’s interest—is the thing worth noticing about Muñoz.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


[Despair out of envy] could be the best explanation of all his (alleged) actions, because psychological patterns of this sort are such that they can be used to explain anything. It is possible to explain a human being by this means, that is, by psychology, whenever you want to (it is amazingly simple and thus so beguiling), and the speaker does not even notice that he is always talking exclusively about himself and his own theories, which he then imposes on the world and the whole human race, and not talking about the object he is observing (the person, for example, Gasser). The man in the street subsequently knew one thing only: the psychological model of explanation.

Several years ago now I remember reading an article about modernist fiction that discussed the problems avant-garde writers had disrupting the idea of character: whereas various other literary devices are relatively easy to disrupt, it is hard to have fiction where there isn’t something to which readers can attribute some sense of interiority (some modernists, of course, were all about interiority and character)—and to some extent postmodernism has had this problem too. You can flatten out characterization and use other devices all you want, but readers will just get away with the darnedest things using any scrap available.

As the opening quote may suggest, Andreas Maier’s Klausen (trans. from the German by Kenneth J. Northcott, 2010) is tangled up in this problem: it is a novel that questions the motives people lend to others, and gives you very little to go on about what anyone’s true motivations may have been or even of what has happened. The narrator gives us not an event or series of events but an accounting of all the things people are saying they think has happened in the town of Klausen: everyone is convinced something has happened, mostly they agree that it was a disaster (maybe terrorist attack), and mostly they agree it is all the fault of someone named Gasser, a long absent son of a Klausen widow who has recently returned to the region. By the end of the book, this is still pretty much all we know for sure, because all we learn is what people are claiming they saw (or learned second-hand), and various reasons for thinking that their story may be dubious or is in conflict with other versions of events. To an extent, you could say Maier himself succumbs to a theory of psychology that explains everyone as both willing and unwilling falsifiers of events to serve their own desires—to make the critique he has to succumb to the problem.

What all this adds up to, though, is a hilarious novel told in one long paragraph that lasts up until the final pages: I began reading the novel several times only to put it down because I realized that if I really wanted to read it I would want to have a rather large amount of time to get through large chunks at once. Reading the various versions of events is just too fun, starting with the opening scene of a hotel owner’s account of what occurred between Gasser, himself and two tourists some time before the “event.” And one account leads to and bleeds into another in a way that makes it hard to decide where to stop for a break.

If I have one real complaint about the novel, it is the end, which I found a little too pat and cute: the final image of the novel is too obviously metaphorical and hits us over the head with something that, really, we don’t need spelled out. But this is a small part of what is, in all, a great novel.