Here in the Dark, Alexis Soloski

Personhood and Performance in Alexis Soloski’s ‘Here in the Dark’

Alexis Soloski’s Here in the Dark illuminates the act of performance (no matter the stage) and the notion of stepping into and out of one’s personhood.

Here in the Dark
Alexis Soloski
December 2023

 Here in the Dark is the debut novel by Alexis Soloski, formerly the theater critic for The Village Voice and now a culture writer for The New York Times. Crafting a theater review utilizes a wholly different skillset from that required in crafting a novel, so the question is whether Soloski has bridged this divide. The answer is: ‘Oh yes.’ 

Here in the Dark presents a twisty plot. The storyline is full of snappy reparté and surprises that will stop readers in their tracks. But the novel is so much more; it is also a many-layered meditation upon the concepts of personhood and performance.  

Theater critic Vivian, the narrator and protagonist, feels that she is a real person only while she sits in the darkened theater and “mind-melds” with the stage performers. “Every time I step into the theater,” she tells us, “I make a choice to believe” – that the lighting, sound effects, and cheap stage furnishings are the real world. That Vivian was once an actress facilitates her ability to perform this mystical superposition of real life onto actors and stage sets. “I keep my eyes fixed below the proscenium arch,” she says. “I look and look. But only in the dark. Where no one else can see me.”  

As a theater critic, she has become increasingly acerbic.

“Nothing that I write is generous, none of it consoles. But this is the fault of the art…I can’t pretend goodness or genius or truth where none exists…something miserly has crept into my writing, something cruel that I can’t soften….” 

Her cruel critiques will, in the end, play a crucial role in Here in the Dark‘s story.

This short but complex novel braids a multiplicity of plotlines: Vivian coming alive, as a person with feelings, only at night in the theater audience; Vivian wiling away her daytime life in bed, often with a bottle; Vivian fainting during life-and-death scenes (having fainted at theatrically staged murder as a child, her mother telling her that what she saw on stage wasn’t real but, by touching Vivian’s fingers, hands, wrists, etc., showing Vivian that she is real).   

Soloski presents mysteries within mysteries. The principal mystery is centered on a graduate student who interviews Vivian about the art of theater criticism, after which he promptly disappears. This pivotal event provides Vivian with risky activities that keep her busy during the day and generates clever twists and turns at the heart of this narrative.  

The author’s writing style makes this debut novel come alive. Soloski knows how to use humor and realistic dialogue effectively, from mere banter that illuminates a character’s nature to dialogue-as-action that moves the plot along – an actor’s errant hand can cause spilled milk, but so can an expertly crafted piece of dialogue. Also unusual for a debut novelist, Soloski respects her readers’ imagination by sparingly using exposition and description to not bog down the narrative pace by painting in every detail. 

Here in the Dark‘s pace is quick, and the reader is impelled from one surprising hairpin turn (“but wait, how could this be?”) to the next until the plot’s resolution. A common fault found in debut novels is the tendency of the author to explain everything to the reader. In this case, however, while Soloski’s plot is a contrivance, it is a beautiful contrivance whose pulleys, cogs, and springs actually call for explication. However, the dramatic denouement is not problematic in this author’s skillful hands.  

Soloski has deep experience in the theater as a critic. She adds depth and verisimilitude to her novel by bringing her knowledge to bear, referring to (and manifesting) the theatrical precept known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ as well as citing a variety of plays and playwrights, explaining (and also creating scenes that exemplify) concepts of Greek theater, as noted below.  

On one level, Soloski serves up a fast-paced mystery/detective/revenge tale in which the protagonist and the reader simultaneously experience moments of recognition of just how deluded they have been (anagnorisis). On another level, the author teases out the notion of ‘performance’ where actors merge with their characters, where members of the audience, including critics, merge with both actors and characters (mimesis), and where the protagonist can find herself both actor and audience. 

Here in the Dark is a rare debut. Soloski creates an intriguing tale of art and life with depth, texture, and psychologically three-dimensional characters. At the same time, the novel dives deeper to illuminate the act of performance (both onstage and in real life) and the notions of stepping into and out of character, personhood, and personal identity. Like the narrator, there are times when readers will find themselves sitting in the dark, which, in the case of this debut novel, is both engaging and rewarding. 

RATING 9 / 10