Manuel Muñoz’s literary career so far has largely consisted of keenly observed short stories, quiet and beautiful work about the interior lives of people struggling with personal tragedies. His new novel, What You See in the Dark, is a story of three women in the San Joaquin Valley of California, struggling with love lost or never quite attained. The prism Muñoz chose to refract their stories was Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho.
In 1959, Arlene Watson works as a waitress in Bakersfield’s downtown diner and operates the motel out on Highway 99 that her husband built before he left her. Her son, Dan, the most desirable man in town, falls for Teresa, a Mexican woman whose mother has left to find Teresa’s father somewhere in Texas. Teresa sings at Dan’s bar and has a decidedly midcentury dream of taking her place on the stages of televised variety shows. In the meantime, ‘the Actress’ rolls into town to shoot a scene in a motel for a famous director. Though the book never names them, the actress is Janet Leigh, nervous about working for Alfred Hitchcock and preparing for the famous shower scene in Psycho. Though Bakersfield is just over 100 miles from Los Angeles, it feels like another world, and attention immediately falls on Leigh, raising tension in the small town.
For Muñoz, the novel was a long time coming. In 1994, as an undergraduate at Harvard, he enrolled in a Hitchcock class. While watching Psycho on the big screen, he spotted a road sign for Gorman, California, a town on the way to the valley and not too far from where he grew up.
‘I come from an area of the country that most people think could never contain an interesting story, or doesn’t contain interesting people,’ says Muñoz. ‘I was around a lot of Harvard kids from New York and New England, and it seemed to me that books are always about New York and New England. That moment stayed in my head for a long time.’
While much of his work has involved characters longing to leave the valley, says Muñoz, he wanted his novel to be about the outside world encroaching on the small towns. The disparate stories of What You See in the Dark touch lightly on each other. While the actress struggles with portraying a character with looser morals than the parts she’d chosen in the past, culminating in a beautifully written chapter on the shooting of that shower scene, from the actress’s perspective, real violence strikes outside. Though the plot never heats up to potboiler, and Muñoz plays coy with the details of what happened, Teresa ends up dead and Dan goes on the run (if you read the jacket copy, that’s not a spoiler).