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A Moment in the Sun

From John Sayles, a "sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor" novel of the Spanish-American War.

(Page 2 of 3)

Is it fulsome praise, backhanded compliment, or full-frontal sneer to call "A Moment in the Sun" a book that is, above all else, cinematic?

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Such intermodal correspondences are, these days, fraught with a sort of moral indeterminacy. The ancient, or "high," would seem to legitimate the modern and "low." In our ongoing TV renaissance, describing a series as novelistic is uncomplicated, fawning tribute. Yet "The Wire" might revivify Dickens as much as Dickens ennobles "The Wire." Calling out a film's formal resemblance to stage drama is sometimes a nod to high-literary pedigree and almost always dismissive – that is, a visually static work that wastes the innovations of its medium, a movie that fails to move.

The most facilely filmic thing about "A Moment in the Sun" is, to be sure, its author. Though he first emerged as a novelist ("Union Dues" was nominated for a 1978 National Book Award), John Sayles has been for three decades now one of the most prolific and genuinely independent of American screenwriter-directors. But this big-screen oeuvre doesn't quite have the bearing on Sayles's new novel, his first since 1991, you'd expect. Compared to the self-contained, low-budget craftsmanship of his many ensemble dramas – from "Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980) to "Sunshine State" (2002) and "Honeydripper" – "A Moment in the Sun" is far more movie-like, or at least far more like a certain type of movie: a sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor epic.

The better touchstone might be Sayles's third career – the one that finances the other two. Quite possibly the only universally respected people in Hollywood, "script doctors" are the handsomely paid (and usually uncredited) narrative mercenaries hired to turn awful genre exploitations into watchable entertainments and solid blockbusters into classics. Sayles has had a hand in "E.T.," "Apollo 13," and (as yet unflimed) "Jurassic Park IV," among many others, and there is a Hanks/Spielberg economy to his unfolding of world history as a patchwork of portentous lives.

Though stuffed with meticulously researched historical detail, "A Moment in the Sun" must be one of the least indulgent 1,000-page novels of recent decades. Scenes are never more than a few pages long, and are sequenced for the most decisive "cuts" between perspectives and continents. Neither thematic discursion nor temporal diversion intervenes in the self-logic of these collisions – which take the form of what the Soviet film theorist Sergei Eisenstein termed "montage." The phenomenological effect is one of a constant, 24-frames-per-second drumbeat, adding up to a nascent American century on the march, for better or worse. Put a cruder way, this is the rare literary novel in which just about every page takes just about the same amount of time to read.


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