The ability to comprehend unspeakable violence is based largely on scale. Today it's frighteningly easy to imagine a situation where you might be killed by someone. But for most of human history, it was more difficult to conjure the deaths of thousands of people. Technology makes it possible to the point that we can watch, into perpetuity, as portions of humanity are wiped away by natural disasters or by terrorists in hijacked airplanes. Why do we bother to watch at all? Is it a skewed attempt at empathy?
Maybe it's just that violence has always led to voyeurism, but for Mae, the narrator of Madison Smartt Bell's uncomfortable, yet electric novel "The Color of Night," an event like the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center engenders another sensation altogether: erotic nihilism. She cuts hours of carnage into "two perfect hours of tape with no commentators or gabbling" and watches the "glittering windows like soap flakes swirling … and the tower shuddered, buckled, blossomed and came showering down." She watches the footage repeatedly, stopping only to admire her naked self in the mirror and check for visible scars of her own destructive life and to view the frozen image of a bloodied woman on the screen. That she recognizes the woman as Laurel, her former lover, is the kind of happenstance that might sink another novel, but "The Color of Night" is soaked in the radiance of fatalism, with disparate historical elements tethered to Mae by horrific violence.
For Mae, violence began early in her life with the rapes she suffered at the hands (and knifepoint) of her brother, a disturbing fact without any further illumination but which becomes even more troubling when she speaks of the pleasure she found in the pain, cutting herself to relive the feeling. It's unsettling to read, though Mae's first-person narration provides a subtle escape for readers since Mae has drugged herself so often that these memories are like fever dreams, hazy at the corners and black in the center.
Her reality is not much different: She deals cards at a Boulder City, Nev., casino by day, her hours melt time and space together such that she can't recall her own arrivals and departures. At night she prowls the open desert by her trailer park home with a rifle, sometimes shooting coyotes, sometimes letting them live. And since spotting Laurel, her mind has turned into a newsreel from the Summer of Love, except that Mae didn't just turn on, tune in and drop out — she sold her body from Denver to San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she walked into the welcoming arms of the People, a razor-thin fictionalization of the Manson Family, and into the dizzying sway of a man known as D, an even thinner fictionalization of Manson himself. Here too Mae falls for Laurel, and her life begins to take on predictable turns and twists, historically speaking, as the People segue from free love to savagery.
What's fascinating here is that Mae is the perfect cipher for D because her facility for brutality is unfettered. For Mae, evil becomes a naturalized and unrepentant part of who she is, carved into her bones like scrimshaw. Filled with D's messianic rantings and her own opaque center, Mae begins to see others around her as "mortals," mere folly for an advanced being like herself. That she feels no different some 30 years later in the face of the destruction of the World Trade Center is frankly horrifying.
It's no easy task to make readers care about a character as disturbed as Mae — Bell is careful to never cast her as a victim, which in itself is a deft narrative stroke (and one that is likely to make some readers turn away). But those who stay will find a novel that challenges the very anatomy of evil, a novel that breaks down a deeply flawed character until all that's left is a vast and terribly familiar darkness.
Goldberg is the author of several books, including "Simplify" and, most recently, the story collection "Other Resort Cities."