Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chuck Palahniuk and Manuel Muñoz: Reading in the Dark

Chuck Palahniuk has talent to burn. He’s best known for the outrageously brutal Fight Club, which of course was the source material for David Fincher’s notorious 1999 film. So when he took on the adult movie industry in Snuff, he presumably had some inside knowledge about the way films are made. But Snuff is less a realistic look at the dark side of moviemaking than an opportunity to shock and outrage his readership. The blurb on the book jacket proudly proclaims, “From the master of literary mayhem and provocation, a full-frontal Triple-X novel that goes where no American work of fiction has gone before.” Since the book’s subject is a porn star’s assault on the world record for serial fornication on camera, how could Snuff be otherwise than deliberately, extravagantly tasteless?

The telling is clever, darting among the points of view of three of the six hundred men lined up to copulate with the fading star. And Palahniuk has fun dabbling in porno queen Cassie Wright’s filmography, giving her leading roles in such adults-only masterpieces as Lay Misty for Me and Sperms of Endearment. An author who names his villain Branch Bacardi definitely has his tongue in his cheek, or someplace infinitely nastier.

But in writing about the way of all flesh, Palahniuk seems to have precious little interest in genuine human emotion. Which brings me to a small first novel by Manuel Muñoz, just published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. What You See in the Dark is a tour-de-force melding of the world of movies and the much narrower world of Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s. In Muñoz’s artful telling, the story of a small town love affair gone wrong intertwines with the brief visit to Bakersfield of an unnamed Hollywood actress and director, there to shoot a scene or two for a movie that is obviously Psycho. While in town, they do a casual location scout, casing a few roadside motels for visual ideas, and the actress picks up from the sad, lonely proprietress of one of them some character notes she will incorporate into her movie role. Later (in a narrative that uses time with great creativity), we will see that same sad, lonely proprietress watch Psycho in a local movie house, and recoil in disgust from the sordid doings the film portrays.

As in Psycho, there’s a brutal murder in this novel, but the story is never a direct parallel of Hitchcock’s familiar one. Instead, the two plotlines bounce off of one another in ways that are always intriguing. Muñoz’s central characters—a shy young Mexican girl who works in a shoe store, the handsome local stud, his careworn mother (who combines waitress chores with the running of that roadside motel), a respectful Mexican field hand—have lives of their own that have nothing to do with Marion Crane and Norman Bates. But these folks, and those living beside them, are starved for the romance they see on movie screens. Muñoz captures their craving for Hollywood’s magic, but also veers into the head of Hitchcock, who’s pondering (a decade after Psycho) exactly what he has wrought.

The New Violence on movie screens—violence that’s blatant and not especially artful—is what’s bothering Hitchcock. Palahniuk obviously revels in it. On the strength of What You See in the Dark, I’ll take Muñoz any day.


  1. You've sold me - I have to cut this comment short so I can hie on over to Amazon and see about Mr. Munoz's book!

    1. Let me know what you think, Craig. I honestly think it's a terrific read.