Not long ago I saw an interview with Philip Roth on You Tube. During the course the interview Roth commented on the length of time it should take to read a novel. He stated that if the reader spent more than one month on any one novel he or she was not really reading it. Of course, Roth being Roth, did not elaborate on how or why he had arrived at this. Philip Roth’s last several novels have all been relatively short, therefore ideal to complete well within the month timeline Roth himself issued. Some novels are meant to be read in the course of a day, others in a few days or weeks. But what about really big novels?
I’ve just finished reading John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, the first of three or four really “big” novels (over 500 pages) Gardner wrote in his short career (he died in 1982 in a motorcycle accident in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania at the age of 49). The entire novel (690 pages) took me about 32 days to read. If I am following Roth’s hypothesis, then I did not really experience the novel in the “intended” way. Just what that way is I am not exactly sure. Needless to say, I do feel as if I lived with the characters and in the city of Batavia, New York where the novel takes place.
There are novels that contain characters that we come to know as if they were a part of our empirical existence. The fictional people we encounter and come across through a lifetime of reading have, I argue, the same, if not more, of an impact on us than the people we meet in our waking lives. Here I am separating empirical reality from fictional reality for the sake of clarification. Empirical reality is our waking life. It is the world that finds us holding the book we are reading while lying in bed, sitting in our favorite chair, standing up, or anywhere. Empirical reality is the world of bills and mortgages, of snow shoveling and rushing the kids to practice. It’s the world of folding laundry. Fictional reality is the world of the book. It is the reality every reader encounters when he or she opens the pages and becomes caught up in the lives of the characters. It’s a world where middle-aged men are allowed to dress as a knight errant and roam the Spanish countryside. It’s the world where everything is possible.
The Sunlight Dialogues (published by Knopf in 1972) takes place in Batavia, New York. Of course, there is also a “real” Batavia, New York near Buffalo and Rochester on the western edge of the state. The empirical Batavia is a geographically specific place where John Gardner grew up. The fictional Batavia is similar to the empirical Batavia, but different, and should not be confused with the empirical city. Why? Because the Batavia that is located in The Sunlight Dialogues is really only a fragmentary re-presentation of the empirical Batavia. The fictional Batavia can be located between the pages of the novel and springs from the imagination of the author, John Gardner. It is not irrelevant that Gardner based his fictional Batavia on the empirical Batavia, but the two are not the same. The fictional Batavia is the dream-like city that only presents its readers with a similarity; a ghostly image of the empirical city.
The characters in the novel, Police Chief Fred Clumly, his wife Esther, the Hodge family, a cast of supporting characters, and most important, the Sunlight Man, are all real in the imagination of the reader and the author. I know these characters, I know their stories. For 32 days I was a resident of the fictional Batavia with a stake in the events that took place there. Nevertheless, I am also the empirical reader who knows that when I close the pages of the book for the night the characters retreat into a kind of darkness that exists in the subconscious. In the novel there is a minor character who calls himself Boyle. He’s a petty thief the reader meets in the first pages. Over the course of the novel we find out that Boyle’s real name is Benson. Okay, so not really a big deal, right? Interestingly, in a chapter titled, “Benson versus Boyle,” that character begins to confuse his identities and even has trouble recalling his “real” name. The same happens to a reader when he or she encounters a really powerful book. We confuse empirical reality and fictional reality. This can be a truly magnificent experience.
John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues is a masterpiece. Gardner takes the reader and transport’s him to the fictional worlds of Batavia, New York in a way that stays with the reader long after reading the book is completed. Really big novels demand a greater commitment from its readers. Some of us purposefully slow our reading down so that the narrative doesn’t have to end. Philip Roth is brilliant, but completely wrong on how long it should take to read a novel.