Manuel Muñoz’s debut novel, What You See in the Dark, may be difficult to classify at first glance (both editions are adorned with wonderfully pulp cover art). Is the novel a mystery? Historical fiction? Literary fiction? Latino fiction? The answer, it turns out, is yes. Written in both exacting and graceful prose, Muñoz’s debut swings big, not content to hug the boundaries of one particular genre but instead going beyond convention and in doing so creating something original and exciting.
Set in Bakersfield, CA, in the late 1950s, the three female narrators of What You See in the Dark are faced with changing realities, each navigating a world of shifting cultural, societal, and economic realities. There is Teresa, the young Chicana daring a taboo relationship with small town golden-boy, Dan Watson, and dreams of a life beyond her apartment above the local bowling alley. There is, “The Actress,” in town to prepare for a new role (an unnamed Janet Leigh readying for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), one against type, one where she will be exposed in ways she has never been before. And finally, Arlene Watson, the character for who change is not only about the future but a coming-to-to-terms with the past and the things she’s done.
Like Hitchcock’s work in Psycho, Muñoz pays great attention to detail and creates absorbing scenes, but where Hitchcock concentrated on technical precision to manufacture terror—his famous three minute shower scene is comprised of over seventy different camera angles and took over a week to film—Muñoz’s powerful writing produces much more than shock. Using alternating points-of-view, Muñoz weaves an intricate narrative that proves far more haunting. The stories of Teresa and Arlene, of The Actress and even Bakersfield, are so well observed and realized that they'll remain with you long after you’ve finished reading, which is exactly what a great novel does, no matter the genre.
Matt Mendez’s stories have appeared in Cutthroat, Huizache, PALABRA, PANK, The Literary Review and other journals. His first book, “Twitching Heart,” is forthcoming from Floricanto Press.
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