So, another month is over and here I am coming back to review the books I sunk my eyes into over the month. This was a slow month. I made mention last month that I was going to be tackling ‘Winter’s Tale’ this month, which is nearly 800pg, and with the kids and wife and work and life I just wasn’t sure that I’d be able to finish it in one month. So, I had decided that since this was the halfway point in the year I’d go ahead and basically post a ranking of the books I did read over the year so far. Well, I’m adding one book to that list since I did manage to read a book last month. It wasn’t ‘Winter’s Tale’ (I’m only 200pg in, but DAMN is it wonderful). I read multiple books at a time (one at the house and one at the office) and I wound up reading more at the office than usual and so the book I finished was ‘What You See in the Dark’, which is one I’ve been dying to get my hands on for a while.
Back when ‘Hitchcock’ was announced last year, I was certain they were basing the film off of Manuel Munoz’s novel, ‘What You See in the Dark’. I didn’t know much about the novel itself, only that it centered on a small town during the filming of ‘Psycho’ and that Nate over at The Film Experience raved the novel as something truly special. Coupling the raves with the fact that Scarlett Johansson had the plum role of Janet Leigh, I was excited. Then facts got clearer and it became obvious that the two had nothing in common and the film left a small blip on the lives of movie goers (that blip being one of disappointment) and I was left wondering if ‘What You See in the Dark’ would really be all that wonderful.
‘What You See in the Dark’ is not a book directly about the filming of ‘Psycho’. Yes, that plays a prominent part in the story structure and telling, and it does lace some very interesting scenes and parallel the main focus of the story, but names are never dropped and even the title of the film itself is never used, although implications make it obvious. Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock are referred to as merely The Actress and The Director, but we get the hint. Interwoven in the telling of the ‘scouting’ and ‘filming’ of this movie is the story of a young Mexican girl, Teresa, living above a bowling alley, being wooed by two men and envied by a town. She is the primary focus of this story, and it is her grisly demise that outlines the tale in crimson red. Still, there is a waitress and motel owner, Arlene, who finds her life intersecting with both Teresa and this ‘actress’ roaming about town.
At the heart of ‘What You See in the Dark’ is a story about aspirations, self-doubt and regret. It uses these three women as benchmarks to represent various stages in life. You have Teresa, the young wounded soul, suffering from hesitation in her own convictions and yet she’s a dreamer, and a dreamer who can see those dreams coming true with the right push. Then you have the actress, a young woman who has achieved those dreams and yet is sacked to the soul with internal self-doubt, which conflicts with her growth. She aspires to be a better actress than she perceives herself as being, and so while the world watches her every move and contemplates her happiness, she is ransacked by feelings of inadequacy. And then you have Arlene, the aged single mother trying to fit in with the younger waitresses on her job and trying to rear her son in the right path, although his actions leave her disappointed. He’s unreliable, like every other teenager, and his running around with Teresa leave Arlene bitter. She’s already bitter from her loneliness and jilted by her past, and she’s constantly plagued by regret in her own ‘lack of actions’ and dissipation of aspirations. She is what Teresa most likely would have become, had life not taken a deadlier course.
Emotional resonance abounds in this masterful debut. Munoz is a poet, honestly. I was lured in by the very first sentence, and the pages just churned with such ease thanks to Munoz’s brilliant grasp of language and character development. Even secondary character like the semi-narration by the jealous girls in town watching Teresa with envy are full of richly realized backstory. You understand how they fit perfectly into the scope of this tale, and their presence is just as haunting as the three women at the core of this book.
So that brings me to that ‘ranking’ I was going to do. With ‘What You See in the Dark’ in the bag, that brings my total so far to 20 books. I’ll break this down my star ranking as well, since I tend to rank everything with a five star system.
2. The Darling/Banks
3. Jane Eyre/Bronte
4. What You See in the Dark/Munoz
6. The Stranger/Camus
7. The Beach/Garland
8. The Leopard/Nesbo
9. Treasure Island/Stevenson
10. The Redeemer/Nesbo
11. Summer Crossing/Capote
12. Werewolves in their Youth/Chabon
13. Great Expectations/Dickens
14. The Final Solution/Chabon
15. The Snowman/Nesbo
16. Everything is Illuminated/Foer
18. Gentleman of the Road/Chabon
20. John Keats: A Literary Biography/Hancock