Black and White
I’ve finished my third Big Book, A Moment in the Sun, by John Sayles. It was absolutely wonderful. Engrossingly detailed, epically sweeping, thematically honed, richly historical, culturally dynamic, and deeply human.
(Sorry, am I gushing?)
Despite my (possibly over)emphatic report of the novel, I won’t be writing too long of a post on it (partly because I’m already 150 pages through my fourth Big Book: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami), suffice it to say that it has been my favorite read in the last six months, hands d0wn. Each novel has been (and will likely continue to be) drastically different from the ones previous, so it is a bit of apples & oranges, but A Moment in the Sun has still been the most enjoyable Big Book of my project, not to mention a beautifully conceived and skillfully executed novel.
From a purely preferential and totally non-structuralistic standpoint, I think one of the things that I enjoyed about it was that it was stylistically similar to one of my favorite authors, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and others). The historicity and multiculturalism in this novel, as well as its overall voice and tone, were especially reminiscent of The Thousand Autumns…. (Frankly, it made me wish that Mitchell had gotten a little more ballsy in writing Cloud Atlas and gave it the length it deserved and required. If he wrote a thousand-page novel, I would read it.)
[Even a slight physical resemblance, wouldn’t you say?]
One theme that I didn’t touch on in my previous post that I’d like to give an honorable mention now is the way in which the perception of events is filtered through the lens and bias of the Media. Sayles uses a number of methods to do this: he sets forth the advent of “moving pictures,” follows the daily trials of New York newsies, glimpses briefly into the inner workings of newspapers from as big as Heart’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World in New York to Thomas Clawson’s Messenger in Wilmington, NC (contrasted with Alexander Manly’s Daily Record — “The Only Negro Daily in the World” [sic]).
One scene especially revealing scene depicts the Messenger‘s printing press operator, Drew Milsap (who has an incredibly detailed memory), setting the type for the next day’s press, when he recollects that the story he is setting (about a “black brute” committing the “nameless crime”) has already been printed, word for word, save one detail: the name of the city has been switched from Zebulon to Eagle Rock. But when he brings what he perceives as an error to his boss…
Mr. Clawson sighs and then exchanges a strange kind of smile with the seated men. “Were you at the scene of the violation, Drew?”
“Mr. Clawson, I only know what I read in the papers—-”
“And that, gentlemen,” interrupts the editor, “may well be the salvation of our fair city.”
The men laugh again and Milsap wishes he had just let it slide.
“I thank you for your concern for our—-our veracity, Drew, but we have a public duty to fulfill. We mustn’t let mere facts stand in the way of larger truths.”
Another example of this is the interpolated scenes which describe the character known only as “the Cartoonist,” interpreting each major event (the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, the invasion of Cuba, the invasion of The Philippines) through a sure to be printed political cartoon. One scene wherein the Cartoonist reinforces stereotypes (the “larger truths”) in black and white, depicts the Cartoonist struggling with how to draw a Filipino (which he has never seen), and settles to combine elements of the ragged Cuban villager he used when the U.S. “rescued” them from the Spanish with the aggressive and tribal traits of his typical African form. And thus: the impression is formed in the minds of Americans.
(I know I’ve already said this, but Sayles’ novel is insanely historically accurate. You can Google the majority of his characters and find that most of them are actual historical figures. Even most (if not all) of the political cartoons he depicts are based on actual, published political cartoons from the later 1800s-early 1900s. Seriously: just check out these images.)
There is so much more to this novel, it’s hard to stop short. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves good historical fiction, or even if you don’t (I’m not usually a ‘historical fiction person’ but I LOVED this novel). I would also recommend it to anyone who thinks racial prejudice (not even just against blacks, but just across the board Anglo-preferentialism) played little to no part in early American politics and imperialism, or that the subsequent actions of that mentality had little to no lasting effect even today. Sayles’ novel shines a light on many things rather swept under a rug, some of the darkest skeletons of America’s closet. For any citizen of the United States, A Moment in the Sun is an eye-opener and a must-read.