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.

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