Skip to main content

The Color of Night

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

The Color of Night

"The Color of Night" by Madison Smartt Bell
Joshua Chaplinsky
Incest, Charles Manson and September 11th- one woman's personal history of sex and violence.

My first thought upon hearing the title of the new Madison Smartt Bell novel-

The Color of Night? Isn't that that terrible erotic thriller where Bruce Willis shows his wang? Why would anybody reuse that title? It's been ruined.

My first thought after finishing the book-

Whose penis were we talking about?

So what does it take to wash the bad taste of Bruce Willis' wang out of your mouth? (I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.) How about the palette cleansing triumvirate of murder, rape and incest? Madison Smartt Bell peppers his new novel with a liberal dose of each, weaving together an unsettling tale of surrogate gods, the Manson family and the tragic events of September 11th.

The whole thing is viewed through the eyes of Mae, a desert dwelling blackjack dealer on the run from her past. When she's not at the casino or exploring the desert, she's watching news footage of the towers falling on a continuous loop. It is there that she sees the image of an ex-lover, arms outstretched, face contorted in anguish. The familiar visage transports her back to a time the pair spent as indifferent followers of a charismatic ex-con. The hunted becomes the hunter as she decides to confront her past and track the enigmatic woman down.

Bell serves up Mae's story in digestible, dream-like chunks, alternating between past and present without sacrificing forward momentum. From childhood experimentation with cutting and bondage to running "higgledy-piggledy" with the Manson family, a complex relationship with sex and violence soon emerges. If there is one flaw to her portrayal, it is that her relationship with both her brother and her lesbian lover contain that inescapable element of male sexual fantasy. Otherwise, Mae is a multi-faceted character full of flaws and ambiguity.

Her vision of violence borders on poetic. Describing the repetition of the towers falling as "a game of Tetris no one could win," is both disturbing and apt. Even more disturbing is the detached, almost nostalgic view she has of her abuse at her brother's hand.

It's been a long time coming, but I finally feel like we're in a place where film and literature can effectively explore the larger ramifications of 9/11. Not because we weren't previously emotionally prepared, but because the mad rush to be the first to say something "important" seems to have finally died down. That doesn't mean there haven't been other successful attempts- Delillo's Falling Man comes to mind- but the benefit of time has allowed for a more honest handling of the subject. Whereas previous takes were too self conscious, Bell strikes the right chord, tonally. It felt as though I was being made to understand the events without the baggage of my own experience, like talking to a survivor of the Holocaust.

It helps that The Color of Night isn't strictly a 9/11 novel. It begins and ends there, but it doesn't really begin or end there. It's like an Ouroboros of psychic violence, perpetually devouring its own tail. Bell tracks the culture of violence in America, from the 60's to the present, as it pertains to the individual. It doesn't presume to make any definitive statements or broad generalizations. It doesn't preach. The integration of what is arguable the most defining moment in recent American history comes off as completely natural.

The list of writers capable of pulling off such a feat is a short one. Take into account how immensely readable The Color of Night is and that list gets even shorter. Bell gives us a simple story about complex subject matter without veering into heavy-handed territory. The fiction is never overshadowed by factual events. In other words, character is king here. Mae looms large, stepping off the page and into your brainpan, nestling into the cozy folds of cerebral cortex, where she is very likely to stay. I would advise against trying to extract her by force.