Synopses & Reviews
Mae, a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino, spends her free time wandering the desert with a rifle, or sitting in her trailer obsessively watching replays of an old lover escaping the wreckage of 9/11. What she sees in those images is different from what the rest of us would see. She revels in the pure anarchy, thrills at the destruction. These images recall memories of a childhood marked by unthinkable abuse, of her drift into a cult that committed the most shocking crime of the '60s, of her life since then as a feral and wary outsider, caught in a swirl of events at once personal, political, mythic.
About the 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 lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Goucher College.
Reading Group Guide
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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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.