Sunday, July 09, 2017

Angle of Repose (1971)

Wallace Stegner's novel has a structurally complicated point of view, arcing across time and generations. I wanted to connect that with the title, but as a term "angle of repose" is less about a viewpoint and more about geology and landscape engineering. That's appropriate because the husband of the main character is a self-educated mining engineer (who also works on diversionary waterway construction, such as dams) in the 19th-century American West. The star of this show is Susan Burling Ward, who is based on the historical figure Mary Hallock Foote, an illustrator and writer who followed her civil engineering husband around the West, and sent back reports to the East. This is all news to me. The narrator is the grandson of this couple. He is also a 58-year-old academic historian confined to a wheelchair because he has lost a leg. He is working on a project based on his grandmother's letters. What I like most about Angle of Repose is the way it spins out stories of the Old West. Its particular angle of view is the self-made American man—one thing that eventually holds back Oliver Ward is that he has no formal college education—making things out of the land with his hands. Susan is even more resourceful in her way, especially working within the limitations of being a woman and an artist. The novel was published in 1971, and it's evident in some of the modern-day passages that "Women's Liberation" was still strange and unfamiliar. I didn't get the sense that Susan's role as the main character was in any way intended as a model of feminism—if anything, it's pulling in the other direction, locating her strength in her strong sense of tradition. Stegner might get a little cute with some of his conceits. The narrator is not just researching a book, but this is that book. Toward the end we see the narrator, Lyman Ward, musing over how he will title it "Angle of Repose." Ayup. It ends on a note out of a horror movie, which is as out of place as it is effectively done. I think on the whole I could have done without it. Without a doubt the best parts of the book, and most of it, take place in the distant past. The specificity of the places—Leadville, Mexico, Idaho—is vivid and wonderful. At the same time, the modern mind intrudes often on these scenes, as we are led down the garden path by the narrator into penetrating the interior lives of heroic and larger-than-life characters. The frame doesn't work, but the canvas is pretty impressive.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the historical fiction. Like you say, vivid images of an older time period in the west. But, yeah, the campus novel parts not so much.