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The Color of Night Reader’s Guide

By Madison Smartt Bell

The Color of Night by Madison Smartt Bell


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.


The Color of Night opens with a private, desolate moment as the narrator, Mae, obsessively watches television footage of the Twin Towers collapsing, along with a snippet of footage that captures Mae’s long-ago love, Laurel, reeling in shock at the destruction she witnesses in Manhattan. It soon becomes clear that Mae’s gluttony for devastating images stems from a history of violence in her own life, which she lives with both resilience and recklessness.

The chapters in this novel are short, poetic, and absolutely riveting; each chapter advances one of three narratives that unfold in a weaving pattern, moving seamlessly between three eras in Mae’s life. In the present moment, Mae lives nearly anonymously as a middle-aged casino worker in Las Vegas and spends her free time creeping through the desert beyond her trailer home with a rifle. During her early adulthood, Mae falls in with the People, a cult fueled by free love, drugs, and a haunting sound track by the mythical O——. And during her childhood, which readers witness in posttraumatic flashbacks, Mae’s life is defined by alienation from the “Mom-thing” and by an incestuous relationship with her brother, Terrell. As the novel unfolds, each narrative from Mae’s life careens toward unspeakable violence against herself, animals, and other people. While enmeshed in the cult, she participates in drug-induced escapades from their communal ranch in the California desert to houses in the nearby canyon where they break in and brutally murder the inhabitants. It is Mae’s involvement in these atrocities, we are to presume, that leads—decades later—to a visit from an FBI agent who shows up at her trailer home. Crouching silently in the surrounding desert, Mae shoots the agent, an act of impulsiveness and desperation that necessitates her cross-country escape and eventual pilgrimage to New York’s Ground Zero.

This novel raises the question: Can a cycle of manipulation and abuse ever be interrupted? And once a person travels to the underworld, can he or she ever fully return? Mae’s relationships provide the personal backdrop for these questions, but the novel also points to the larger context of violence in America, from the cult murders of the 1960s to terrorism in the new millennium. The book places such violence in an even deeper, mythic context, as allusions to Orpheus haunt the novel like Sirens from a distant shore, suggesting that aggression may be so entrenched and ancient as to be an inescapable aspect of human nature.

Readers may look to Mae and Laurel’s connection for hope, the only relationship in the book remarkable for its “sheer painlessness“ (p. 59). But the author won’t take us all the way to redemption. Instead, the book ends with a cliff-hanger and a refrain to the opening scene: again Mae is watching Laurel, and again Laurel is in danger, from sources knowable—ovarian cancer—and unknowable—being framed in the crosshairs of Mae’s gun.

From the first page to the last, this book demands our rapt attention and doesn’t let go, even as we descend deeper into night and the terrors of the underworld.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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?

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About this Author

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of fifteen previous works of fiction, including All Souls’ Rising (a National Book Award finalist), Soldier’s Joy, and Anything Goes. He has also written essays and reviews for Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, The Village Voice, and many other publications.

Suggested Reading

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin; Paul Auster, Invisible; Don DeLillo, The Body Artist; Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden; James Ellroy, My Dark Places, American Tabloid, and The Cold Six Thousand; Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men and The Road; Philip Roth, Indignation
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