Madison Smartt Bell
Five years after September 11, a number of novels began appearing on bookshelves directly addressing the tragedy. And depending on how you felt about them, they struck you as either fascinating aftermath time capsules or drippy, unripened emotional outbursts.
Ten years removed from the tragedy, Bell – best known for his sociopolitical novel trilogy about Haiti – gives us The Color of Night, a 9/11 novel in which the towers collapse in distant, pixellated rubble, as seen on TV from Las Vegas. Protagonist Mae is a blackjack dealer living in a trailer park in the desert who, while watching the attack on TV, spots her former friend Laurel, ‘kneeling on the sidewalk, her head thrown back, her hands stretched out with the fingers crooked, as weapons or in praise.’ She tapes footage of the wreckage and watches Laurel over and over.
As she reveals to us through a fastidiously lunatic monologue, Mae was a devotee of Charles Manson in the ’60s. And Mae’s own history as a victim of abuse soon comes out. Mae’s separation from the tragedy is mirrored in her psychic remove; she sees the ‘mortals’ leaping from the towers as little more than ‘gnatlike specks’. In this way, the novel separates itself from that early crop of September 11 novels. Gone is the mawkish emotion. Mae’s psychic and physical distance from the tragedy leaves her as little more than an avatar for suffering, or some sort of golem created by the media’s fascination with emotional pain. As an intellectual exercise it’s interesting, but as a novel it forces the reader to ape Mae’s apathy.