The Modern Library List of Books

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82. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose, which won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a shrewd  and stirring tale about the tragedies and rewards endemic to couplings as diverse as capital and innovation, law and order, love and marriage. It is also a complex commentary  on creative license and intertextuality  and the irreducible importance of narrative perspective.

Lyman Ward suffers from a crippling bone disease. His leg has been amputated, his vertebrae fused so that Lyman, a retired historian who’s made a life of looking to the past, can only face forward.  But faced with a pain-filled days and a terminal prognosis, Lyman has no interest in the future.  Instead, he moves himself into his grandparents’ house in the Sierra Nevada to sift through his grandmother’s letters. Preparing to write his grandmother’s biography, Lyman can almost forget that his wife of more than 25 years left him for the orthopedic surgeon who amputated his leg. 
When Susan Burling married Oliver Ward in the 1870s, she was a Long Island Quaker with artistic talent, cultural ambitions and Manhattan connections. She expected to live a life of cultured conversation on the East Coast, but Oliver, an engineer without a degree, was forced West to make a name for himself. Susan followed her husband across the American West – even as far as Mexico – and faced the rough, and often lawless, life she found  there with pluck and aplomb.

But cultured and genteel, Susan was a Victorian woman, and she often found herself embarrassed by her husband’s straightforward ways. Though far from refined, she tried to make the most of New Almaden society, hosting evenings whenever anyone interesting was in town. She even managed  to assemble an entourage of the lonely and well-read  content to spend their evenings in her cabin in rough and lawless Leadville.                                                                             

But this is no Victorian novel and Oliver is not to be rewarded for his hard work and honesty. In fact, a trusting nature can be a liability in the wild west, a place where men take justice into their own hands and the complacent can lose everything overnight to “land jumpers”.  Oliver is the kind of creative man whose intelligence and hard work results in innovations (like the invention of concrete) but for whom patents are redundant. Never a song-and-dance man, he has hard time pandering for capital. His unwillingness to charm has cost the Wards at least one fortune, and while he waits for backers to come through  to continue his stalled plans to irrigate the Boise Canyon, Susan supports their family of 5 with her stories and illustrations.
Unable to piece together any semblance of cultured society in Idaho, Susan resents her husband’s attachment to his doomed irrigation project. Frustrated and lonely, she encourages one of Oliver’s assistants, Frank, who has been in love with her for a while.  Innocent or otherwise, her flirtation has devastating consequences for the Ward family, and results in Susan and Oliver’s temporary separation.

Though Susan left no actual account of what happened – either of the events that took place or her desires – Lyman finds himself fleshing out the spaces. That is, faced with her complex emotional life, he can’t help but novelize her story, and it is precisely this – Lyman’s perspective – which defines and limits the possibilities of Susan’s story.

To Lyman – a dying man, dealing with what seems to be the ultimate disloyalty – Susan’s story is one about the strength of marital bonds. Susan might have strayed emotionally, but Lyman has a hard time believing she consummated her desires, and if she did, no matter: she stuck around when it counted, refusing to walk away from her shame, to flee from her dreaded western life to the culture and open arms of friends and family in New York. Instead, she opted to return to her marriage, to live out the rest of her days in the chilly shade of her failure. To Shelley, Lyman’s hippie secretary, Susan’s story is a tragedy of thwarted desires and missed opportunities, of misery and sexual repression. To  Rodman, Lyman’s son, Susan’s story is a Hollywood western.

Which brings us to one of the most interesting and more playful aspects of this book: intertextuality. The text of the novel consists of Shelley’s transcription of Lyman’s tapes, interspersed with Susan’s actual letters. Oliver and Susan Ward are based on Arthur DeWine Foote and Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner  got some flack for including verbatim portions of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters. But I think most critics miss the point. In many ways this a very post-modern novel. Stegner is playing with narrative authority, while mocking Victorian expectations –the triumph of the good– and thumbing his nose at modernist call to immediacy. Stories are not in the facts, in the if-thens, but in the meaning those events take on for both the reader and the writer/narrator. If this is true, then appropriation of other people’s facts  -- letters, biographies – is fair game, because the story is not in the details, but in their telling. The story is the narrator, the telling. It resides in the space on the page, the interpretive leap across canyons of missing information. Just as Stegner makes the leap with Mary Foote’s letters, Lyman makes them with Susan’s, and we are forced to make it to understand why Lyman’s wife left him – and in this yawning interpretative space is the real story of Angle of Repose.  


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