Book review: ‘The Color of Night’ by Madison Smartt Bell

May 17, 2011

With “The Color of Night,” Madison Smartt Bell delivers a superheated noir potboiler of unrelenting savagery that assumes proportions that are either cosmic or comic, depending on your taste for such things. The novel may make you cheer or vomit, but I guarantee you won’t read anything else like it this year.

Bell’s protagonist is a Nevada desert rat named Mae, a burnt-out survivor of the worst excesses of the ’60s whose horrific past finds a psychic mirror in the Sept. 11 attacks. When she spots a long-lost lover in the news footage of the fall of the Twin Towers, it triggers a macabre chain of events that drives her deeper into the psychosis that has lain dormant within her for decades. Jarred out of her numbness by the images of destruction back East and flushed from her isolated existence after a bout of vigilante violence, she sets off on a desperate journey towards a final, bloody reckoning.

“The Color of Night” is, to put it mildly, not for everyone. The epic violence is unnerving, to be sure, but what really sets this novel apart is the remorseless nihilism of its protagonist. Mae is damaged beyond repair or redemption, and the further into her past Bell takes us, the more repulsive she becomes. It takes guts for an author to swim against the current this way, but unfortunately, the stern purity of Bell’s vision is undercut by several serious flaws. For one thing, he unwisely saddles his narrative with pseudo-classical babble about the gods and fate (“Her mortal body immolated in the fire and the light of Zeus,” etc.) that sounds like some fifth-grader’s idea of mythic grandeur. For another, the mayhem — and I speak as an appreciative connoisseur of violence in literature, from James M. Cain to Bret Easton Ellis and beyond — becomes so relentless, so over-the-top and portentously declaimed that after a while it slides through catharsis right past pulp and into the unintentionally ridiculous.

Finally, Bell seems to be suggesting a thematic link between the moral dissolution of the ’60s and the attacks of 9/11, a connection somehow too vague and too grandiose to take hold. Interesting failure, though, is always superior to timid success. This novel is an attempt to banish our hazy Sixties nostalgia, a fever dream for the darker corners of our mass subconscious. It’s meant to disrupt your sleep, and it just might, at least for a little while.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.

the color of night

By Madison Smartt Bell

Vintage. 208 pp. Paperback, $15

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