20 July 2011

Many moments in the sun

I’ve been reading the new John Sayles novel Moment in the Sun. It is a very big novel—a hefty 984 thick pages. With this book I sit up in bed else it crush my chest.

I have followed Sayles’ career since his film Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), and in the early 1980s I taught his novel Union Dues. An incident from that novel became a central event in his film Matewan, an account of the West Virginia coal mine union struggles during the 1920s. I understand a thematic strain in this book will be released as a film this August. I have screened Sayles’ other films regularly over the years, and have always taken great pleasure in them, and so when I passed Magers and Quinn, Booksellers, and saw a sign that said John Sayles had been there for a book reading, I marched in and asked for the new John Sayles novel. “Right behind you,” the clerk told me. I lifted the book, requiring two hands to accomplish the feat, and I experience a moment of great doubt, but I was too embarrassed to say “Oh, no, that’s too long,” and place it back on the shelf. I bought it, dear reader.

Moment in the Sun is an historical novel that explores events at the turn of the American 19th century, and especially the Spanish American War during which Cuba and the Philippines were liberated from the Spanish and when America’s quest for empire seems to have begun. I think the novel (I’m not done with it yet, of course) explores the state of the United States at the turn of the century, a moment when Sayles situates the issues that will identify the United States throughout the twentieth century and into the next through a wide cast of characters and locations. There are many issues depicted in this 984 page novel.

And I am thinking that reading such a novel requires a real sense commitment. Since I do not spend my entire day reading it, the novel has become a summer project: I carry it with me (heavily) everywhere I go—and though it is now almost the end of July and I am a month into the project, I am but half way through. By now, I would have read two or three novels, and yet I am not ready to even consider another read. I read other books—Montaigne, of course, and Lewis Mumford and a biography of Harold Rugg and the culture wars of the 1920s and 30s—but I refrain from picking up another novel. I do not want to engage in another world when there is so much in this one to experience. I still visit book stores and browse the shelves and see many books that interest me, but I pass them by. “I am reading Moment in the Sun,” I say to myself, mostly in delight and dedication but somewhat in resignation. And who knows what mood I may be in when I finish the novel and am ready to choose another.

The commitment? To live in the world of this novel over a very long period of time. To meet no new characters but those the author presents here. To devote myself to this singular vision for a very long time and to have it focus the world in which I live. Of course, I have before read long novels, Moby Dick and Ulysses most recently. But each of them was really only half the length of Moment in the Sun. If it were a movie it would require ten or fifteen hours to depict. Indeed, once I spent almost eight hours in a theater screening a film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It began at 8:00pm and concluded at 4:00am with a champagne intermission at midnight. I admit to falling asleep during too much of the peace. Moment in the Sun is two-thirds as long.

It is not a difficult read, mostly plot driven, about a period of time with which I have limited familiarity. I am learning a great deal, but the characters are mostly flat; they are actors in their time, and they have their roles to play. Events control them. They lack complexity. Sometimes I grow quite bored with them. I can see the cinema in the novel, but alas, the popcorn would be just too much added weight.


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