Angle of Repose. Wallace Stegner.

Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. Doubleday, New York, 1971. F; 8/19.

This Pulitzer-winning but for me obscure novel stirs up a 19th century world under the hand of a physically disabled retired academic narrator in the late 1960s, struggling to make sense of things including his superficially washed-up life, by writing about his grandparents’ lives two generations previous. I thought the hard, uncompromising feel to both the grandparents and the narrator might reflect the author in some way. Stegner was a serious apparently universally admired PhD writer, teacher of literature, historian, and environmentalist. His narrator Lyman Ward and Lyman’s ancestors aren’t quite life-events self-descriptions for him but could they be inner ones?

The novel’s title is about the position passively taken by loose material deposited on a surface, hinting at the bleak but realistic ideology abroad in this story: physical reality and its entropic slippage are as inevitable as the realities of engineering and physics, and (as one commentator hints) apropos of one of the story’s terrifying late events we may picture being unable to escape up a repose-angled slope of loose material.

Lyman in publication-contemporary America sets himself up in the former home of those grandparents with all sorts of letters and other historic documents to write the biography of the grandmother, Susan, married to itinerant mining engineer Oliver Ward. She loves and more or less willingly follows Oliver away from her promising New York artistic career into half a dozen rough remote towns. They adjust to circumstances, have kids, and live a range of vivid experiences that picture and deepen Susan’s creativity and Oliver’s technical brilliance and uncompromisingly honesty. Oliver ultimately takes the financial risk of developing irrigation in Idaho, trying to make enough money to help Susan realize her cultural ambitions, while their marriage sadly deteriorates. Infidelity and more dreadful events complicate the late part of the narrative Lyman is writing.

Meanwhile Lyman in the late 1960s fends off the efforts of his son and estranged wife to get him into a nursing home, being partly looked after by a neighbour family. Shelly, the neighbours’ daughter immersed in the 60s counterculture who helps Lyman assemble his documents is casually seductive and Lyman, his imagination fixed on his grandparents’ deep serious emotional lives reflects:

I … respect Victorian rebels and fornicators more than the casual screwers and fornicators of our time, because they risked something, because they understood the seriousness of what they did. Well. Whatever Grandmother did, I take it seriously, because I know she did.

Finishing this complicated story it’s clear that Stegner’s imagination was into more than life’s being after all a bitter vacant disappointment. Speaking in (and of) Lyman Ward’s cynicism: “(we) need … a sense of history … to know what real injustice look(s) like.”
and:

It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.

Against the harshness of the events of the plot, Stegner shows he can dazzle sensually, for example when Lyman’s grandmother is in Mexico:

In her dream she moved with some great procession bearing banners and saints’ images through streets that hummed with the bronze of bells, and woke, and felt the last vibrations from the church tower in the Plaza of the Martyrs quiver through the room and break in soft shock waves against the inner court of the Casa Walkenhorst.

I guess I had just finished my university English lit when this novel appeared, to help explain why I’d heard of it only this year when a good friend recommended it. It seems to be dutifully recognizing 60s aesthetics and ideology: meta-art, reality and illusion, dramatic life events secondary to and overshadowed by up-front struggling creativity. But something finally exuberant and cheerful, or at least humorous, about other late-20th-century novelists like Nabokov, Updike, Mailer, Wallace, and Cunningham isn’t here. The weight of its tone, echoing the tragedy of war we find in Faulkner, Hemingway, Dreiser, and Steinbeck impresses me as more fundamental to Angle of Repose.

Recommended carefully as big, complicated, and quite lovely but definitely on the serious side. 9.0/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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