Madison Smartt Bell’s story of dislocated memory loss and haunting flashbacks, ‘Rabbit Cycling’, was published as part of the online edition of our Aliens issue. Here, Madison – one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists – talks to Ollie Brock about the lint in his pocket, ‘neuronovels’ and his new book, The Color of Night.

OB: Where did the idea for ‘Rabbit Cycling’ come from?

MSB: More than one place. A lot of my stories are like lint in your pocket. Little pieces keep sticking together until finally you have to do something about it. An early one was a drawing from my pocket notebook, circa 2005, at a time when I was living in France, and had some reason to be (retroactively) interested in ‘rapid cycling’ as applied to one’s mood. And then, or possibly before, I was on a book tour that put me in Washington DC for a day in the middle of the circuit. I was about an hour from my home in Baltimore but it was pointless to go there – I would have had just enough time to turn around and come back, which seemed too disheartening – so instead I spent those hours wandering around the capital, waiting for it to be time for my gig. It gave me a weird sense of dislocation, which I exaggerated for the sake of the story.

Even the ‘foil’ to the protagonist – the more straight character, if you like – is surprising. She’s a beautiful woman out on her own, dressed to the nines, who lets this stranger kiss her. What does she represent?

Herself, I reckon, but she’s a mystery to me. She’s another piece of pocket lint. I observed the front end of the scene (the entrance, the rigmarole with the purse on the bar) in some other town, Denver or Minneapolis maybe, on the same tour, or some other tour. Dislocation again. The real-life avatar had a very strange affect. For the sake of the story, I thought, ‘This woman at this moment seems like she’s capable of anything. What if she meets someone who’s incapable of everything?’

We hear a lot about the rise of the ‘neuronovel’. Neuroscience doesn’t actually make an explicit appearance in this story, but a psychological disorder provides a striking premise for it. Why do you suppose readers are so interested in this kind of story at the moment?

Are they really? I googled the term, not having heard it previously, and it strikes me as perhaps not much more than a literary journalistic conceit. But let’s say there’s more to it. For centuries our narratives were grounded in religion. The first brand of psychology to replace religion in the developed world was psychoanalysis. We certainly got plenty of stories about that. But psychoanalysis has slipped out of style, and we now have more medicalized treatments, accompanied by a more bio-mechanical understanding of the psyche. I recently read a wonderful book called The Raw Shark Texts and thought at the end, why does the author want to nail this extraordinary work down to a specific rare and obscure psychopathology? (But maybe that was the publisher’s idea, I dunno.)

Another piece of pocket lint was a BBC programme I had seen when living in London in the 1980s, about a composer with a form of brain damage which reduced his memory to a very short cycle, so that every five minutes or so he had just enough time to realize something bad had happened and feel the first surge of fear – I don’t think I remembered this consciously at the time of writing the story, but I saw it again recently and was reminded.

Anyway, my purpose was not to illustrate this dreadful malady but to make a piece of art that, in part, germinates there. At every moment of our lives we move through crossroads, mostly without being aware of it. I wanted (unconsciously, to be sure) to fix my character at the nexus of all possibilities.

Your new novel, The Color of Night, delves into the violent past of a woman whose memory is jogged by footage of the Twin Towers falling. In our autumn issue this year we’ll be looking at the legacy of 9/11. Do you think that day unleashed something dark in us, which we wouldn’t otherwise have accessed?

Undoubtedly, and at many levels. A terrorist who can make you feel dread whenever you see an airplane has succeeded brilliantly. That part wears off, but I think there is a permanent wound in the national psyche. It can be called minor compared to what many other nations have, but it’s still there.

What I thought I understood almost immediately was that the United States had entered a very long-term situation of what’s called asymmetrical war – the same situation that Israel, to some extent our proxy in these matters, has been in for much longer. Indeed I expected that acts of terror would enter our daily lives to a greater extent than they have so far. I’m not sure why. The ever-escalating harassment of airline passengers reminds me, unpleasantly, of the Maginot Line. I hope we’re as safe here as we seem to be because of the vigilance of our government (which certainly deserves enormous credit for foiling plots like the one to detonate a car bomb in Times Square) and that it isn’t just dumb luck.

In the 1960s American society split along generational and racial lines. The terrorist exploits of the Manson family (alluded to in The Color of Night) were maybe the most extreme expression of a more widely, though less intensely, shared desire to tear the existing social structure down and start over. The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.

You’ve written a lot about Haiti, in both fiction and non-fiction. As the country rebuilds itself, what direction do you see for its literature?

A glorious and terrible quality of Haitian culture is its ability to enact the best and worst extremes of human possibility at the same time. It’s cynical to say that such a situation is propitious for art, but true. Haiti has given us one of the very best American writers of our time in Edwidge Danticat, who also belongs to an extraordinarily fertile community of Creole/Francophone writers: Evelyne Trouillot, Franketienne, Kettly Mars, Rodney Saint-Eloi, Yannick Lahens, Georges Castera, Sito Cavé, Gary Victor, Louis Philippe Dalembert, Lyonel Trouillot and many more. Lyonel Trouillot, for my money, is the ultimate Haitian catastrophe artist, because of his unusual ability to make great art out of historic upheavals while standing in the midst of them.

What are you working on next?

I have an indescribable novel called Behind the Moon, now in the hands of my publishers. I’m finishing a novel about the Red Stick Wars of 1812-13, in which Andrew Jackson destroyed the Creek Nation. I’m contemplating two more Jacksonian novels, about his adventures in New Orleans and Florida, along with a novel about zombies (the real ones, not the spawn of George Romero and nothing at all to do with Jane Austen). I’m committed to spend a good chunk of next year working on a biography of the Haitian revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and – there are lots of other bits of pocket lint but I am not sure exactly when they will be amalgamated.


Photograph © Aslan Chalom

Rabbit Cycling