About the Author
Date of Birth:August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:Nashville, Tennessee
Education:A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981
Read an Excerpt
Until the day the towers fell, I'd long believed that all the gods were dead. For years, for decades, my head was still. Only sometimes, deep in the desert, the soughing ghost voice of O——. But still, the bell of my head was silent, swinging aimlessly over the void.
I could watch it again, as much as I wanted, since the TV kept playing it over and over like a game of Tetris no one could win. No limit to how many times I could consume, could devour those images. Again and again the rapid swelling, ripening to the bursting point, and then the fall. The buckling, crumbling, blooming outward in the great orb of ruin before it showered all its matter to the ground. Those gnatlike specks that swirled around it proved to be mortals, springing out of the flames. Wrapped in the shrouds of their screaming, they sailed down.
It didn't matter how many saw one watching, since none can know another's heart or mind. I had not known my blood could rise like that. Still, again, despite the years, the withering of my body.
Sometimes the television showed a plane biting into the side of a building, its teeth on its underside where the mouth of a shark is—then flame leaped up from the wound like the red surge from an artery. Then there were shots of living mortals on the street, wailing, raking the flesh from the bone of their faces, or some of them frozen, prostrate with awe.
So I saw Laurel for the first time again, Laurel kneeling on the sidewalk, her head thrown back, her hands stretched out with the fingers crooked, as weapons or in praise. Blood was running from the corners of her mouth, like in the old days, though not for the same reason.
Inside the casino, it never happened. Nothing there can enter in. Only the whirl of lights and the electronic burbling of machines, rattle of dice in the craps table cups, an almost inaudible whisper of cards, the friction-free hum of roulette wheels turning. Nothing is permitted to change.
It is a sort of fifth-rate hell, and I a minor demon posted to it. A succubus too indifferent to suck. I have my regulars, of course. Sometimes I even know their names. I deal them cards and they lose money. Occasionally one of them wins, of course, but not for long.
"Mae," tonight's mark says. My name's a little sinister in his faint Slavic accent. He's told me his but I've forgotten. A retired airline pilot, I think he said. Some would find him good-looking, in that square-headed way all the pilots have. Silver hair and a face burnt to wrinkly leather. It takes a long time to catch a buzz from the watered drinks they give free here, but my regular has the determination to do it.
"When you get off work, Mae? When you coming home with me?" I part my painted lips to show my pleasant teeth to him, smooth away the black wing of my hair. I am conscious of not looking up at the dark bulb in the low tiled ceiling, where the two of us are captured by a fish-eye lens. I am older than he, perhaps a lot older, but as far as I know he doesn't know it.
I show my hole card: eight to a jack. Not much of a hand, but my regular took a hit too many and he's busted.
I might have worked a double shift, meaning sixteen hours straight. Sometimes I do. I don't get tired. Even in a fifth-rate hell there is no sense of the passage of time. I don't remember anything unusual that day—if there were fewer people than we normally got, a sudden emptying of the place, illumination from outside. No I don't think there was that. It hardly matters what I recall, since no one is going to call me to witness, at least not on that point.
Probably two hours of darkness remained by the time I got into my car. It takes barely a quarter of that to drive from the casino to my dwelling. I don't listen to the radio. i don't like the chatter, and I don't like music with singing in it, and I don't like to hear guitars or strings. Maybe I listened to piano during the dark drive, Bach or Chopin, in a minor key. No voice told me what rent had been torn in the world that day. When I went into the desert, I still didn't know.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Color of Night, the new novel by Madison Smartt Bell, a National Book Award finalist for All Souls’ Rising and the author of fifteen previous works of fiction.
1. The Greek concept of Até, “the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another,” is introduced in the epigraph from Iris Murdoch. How is the concept of Até central to the novel’s tension? Which characters embody the “transfer of suffering”?
2. The structure of The Color of Night is a weaving of narratives from three eras in Mae’s life: her abusive childhood, her involvement with the People as a young adult, and her post-9/11 despair in Las Vegas. What effects does Bell achieve by moving seamlessly from past to present and back again?
3. Like the “electric ting of metal meeting metal” (p. 58), sex and violence co-occur throughout the novel. Which scenes feature this combination most evocatively? What is the emotional impact of these scenes?
4. What are the similarities and differences in the pleasure Mae and Laurel take in violence?
5. Why are D—— and O—— named by first initial only?
6. What is the significance of the desert landscape and its creatures, like the jackrabbit “crouched tight to the sand” (p. 40) or the coyote “fixing invisible prey with his eyes” (p. 105)?
7. What group dynamics and dark forces lead the People to enact the horrors of “higgledy-piggledy”?
8. In Greek mythology, Orpheus is considered the greatest poet and musician, as well as the inspiration for ancient mystery cults. In what ways does this novel echo the myths of Orpheus, including his descent to the underworld? Why has Bell chosen to incorporate mythological references?
9. The color of night is invoked as the “jet-black darkness” of an artery (p. 63), the “black and glittering beauty of death” (p. 153), and the “rich velvet black, as though . . . submerged in chocolate” (p. 155). What other colors make up the palette of this novel?
10. After Mae kills the FBI agent at her trailer home, we learn of several other plot developments in quick succession: the raid on the ranch and D——’s imprisonment; the brutal end for Terrell and his family; the existence of Laurel’s daughter, Ariadne; the murder of O——; and Mae’s reconnection with Laurel. Which of these culminating plot twists has the most impact?
11. How surprising is the last chapter? What do you think Mae would do if the novel continued beyond the cliff-hanger in the final lines?
12. In what ways can The Color of Night be read as social commentary? What forces in American culture are under consideration? In this light, why is Ground Zero Mae’s ultimate pilgrimage site?
13. To what extent does getting to know the characters in this novel provide new perspective on cult mentality or, in particular, the Manson Family murders of the late sixties?
14. How does Bell manage to make Mae a sympathetic character despite her failings? Which of her character traits are easiest to empathize with?
15. What does this novel suggest about how to interrupt the devastating “transfer of suffering from one being to another”? What are the sources of light in such dark emotional terrain?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)