Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night (Vintage, 2011) uses the Manson murders of 1969 and the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 as a frame in which to consider the latter decades of the 20th century. The narrative comes entirely through the view of Mae, a member of the “Family.” The Manson family is fictionalized but recognizable. Manson is “D.” Mae’s story offers a sense of the cult mentality. Many of its members are damaged to begin with—Mae dislikes her mother and has had a sexual relationship with her brother since she was 12. She is not merely alienated from her family—it simply doesn’t exist for her. She inhabits a kind of void until she goes to work for a pimp in Los Angeles and later is absorbed into the “Family.” There she has a passionate relationship with another girl named Laurel but is also involved in numerous relationships with other members of the Family. “D” on occasion lends female members of the Family to other men for sometimes violent and abusive sex. Although Mae on the one hand is wholly committed to the Family, she fails to see, even to the end, how much she is a victim as well as a perpetrator.
In Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930) we are plunged into characters’ lives through their stream of consciousness narratives. But Faulkner was not exploring or commenting on historical events. Anse Bundren had, as far as we know, no historical basis. He was most likely an imaginative composite, a representation of a particular sort of farmer. I reference Faulkner’s novel because I often thought of it while reading Bell’s—especially in the way he reveals the mind of his main character Mae, who reminded me of Darl Bundren in particular. In The Color of Night “D” is clearly based on Charles Manson, while Mae is more loosely based on the young women who were members of the family and who participated in the Tate murders. This reliance on a factual model puts certain constraints on Bell—certain narrative points have to be touched on, especially the murders. I sometimes felt that this novel was laboring to evoke the Manson family even as it worked to fictionalize. Manson’s paranoiac fascination with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” becomes an obsession with “higgledypiggledy.” The popular singer who was briefly associated with the Manson family becomes “O.” One of the women whom Mae and other members of the family murder is pregnant and pleads for her child; she is hanged and stabbed to death, the same fate as Sharon Tate. Yet Bell certainly did not feel bound by facts and invented much of the story, which he used for the exploration of his own interests.
Chapters tend to alternate from southern California in the late 1960s to the California desert and finally New York City in 2001.
I was never fully drawn into this novel. A point of comparison is Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), whose main character is Lee Harvey Oswald. There the use of a fictionalized historical character works as well as it ever has in American fiction. In Bell’s defense, his character Mae is not based on any single individual. She is instead an imaginatively constructed composite. She never becomes recognizably real in the novel, always remaining vague, indistinct. This may have been Bell’s intention. Unlike the main female personages in the Manson trials, Mae escapes capture, never goes on trial, and lives out the rest of her life in hidden anonymity. Yet she is prepared for pursuers.
The chapters that describe Mae’s wandering in the dark nighttime desert reminded me of DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) as well as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949) and the essays of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). These chapters are deeply unsettling and show how completely isolated Mae has become. At the end, when she manages to find her way into the ruins of the Twin Towers and lies face down in the gravelly ashes, clutching a small piece of what might be human bone, we recognize the full extent of her wrecked and devastated life.