Thursday, May 2, 2013

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner, via

 Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: 1971

It's about: In the spring of 1970, historian Lyman Ward begins writing a biography of his deceased grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, an acclaimed illustrator of the American West in the heyday of its settlement. However, the project assumes a profoundly personal nature beyond mere ties of family affection. Ward has recently suffered through an illness that left him disabled, and an unexpected divorce from his wife of over twenty-five years. He believes that studying his grandmother's own unhappy marriage, he can find some solace for his own failures as a husband. Moreover, Ward feels displaced and disgusted by the rapidly changing social norms of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, blaming them for the dissolution of his former life as a family man and respected professor.

A century earlier, Ward's grandmother, Susan Burling abandons a burgeoning career as a New York artist to marry a soft-spoken, kind-hearted mining engineer named Oliver Ward who feels compelled to make a name for himself in the still-unsettled West. Susan's faith in Oliver as a husband gradually fades over the first decade of their marriage: Oliver neither shares her cultural sophistication nor possesses the business acumen to procure a comfortable income for their growing family. Susan is frequently forced to support the family through her efforts as a writer and artist, even as Oliver's career requires that they endure primitive and dangerous living conditions in mining camps scattered throughout the remotest parts of the West. Gradually, Susan begins to fall in love with Oliver's friend Frank Sargent, a fellow cultured ex-patriate from the East Coast. Nevertheless, both Oliver and Susan struggle to maintain their faltering union.

I thought: Angle of Repose deserves a place in the canon of great "adultery" literature. Beneath the narrative, the novel concerns itself with the problem of compromising personal happiness in order to fulfill the responsibilities of marriage. Like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Angle of Repose finds a fruitful source of dramatic tension in the psychological differences between two halves of a married couple. Susan Burling is a vivacious, emotionally volatile woman with a voracious appetite for culture and conversation. Oliver Ward is a relatively uneducated and introverted man so averse to disagreement that he can scarcely bring himself to object when his employers cheat him or his wife begins to fall in love with his best friend. Individually, the two hold themselves to high standards of comportment, but united in the harsh conditions of the West, the two become a study in complementary weaknesses. Oliver retreats into silent brooding and alcohol, while Susan drifts into a platonic affair and writes impassioned letters and novel chronically her unhappiness.

The novel distinguishes itself through Lyman Ward's acerbic commentary comparing the conservative morality of his grandparents to the shifting morals of mid-century America. Embittered by his own divorce and made skeptical of the very idea of progress by his career as a historian, the curmudgeonly Ward looks on seventies-era liberality towards morality with amused disdain. At one point Ward's secretary, a twenty-year-old divorcee who possesses vague ideals of sexual liberation and little talent for introspection declares "I know, all that business about never seeing your wife naked. They were so puritan about their bodies in those days, it was bound to have screwed up their minds." Ward demands to know what Shelly sees in his grandmother's portrait.
Hypocrisy? Honesty? Prudery? Timidity? Or discipline, self-control, modesty? Modesty, there's a word 1970 can't even conceive. Is that a woman I want to show making awkward love on a camp cot? Do you want to hear her erotic cries? Is that a woman to snicker at because she was fastidious?
Angle of Repose is much more than stirring defense of Victorian morality or an indictment of seventies liberality. It sympathetically draws out the difficulty of attempting to reconcile personal ambition within the strictures of a committed relationship, a problem universal to all marriages, regardless of time or place. The vivid juxtaposition of the two eras in question also serves as a warning against caricaturing previous generations in order to justify the contemporary cultural changes. Stegner unflinchingly depicts both the failings of Susan and Oliver's rigid, formal commitment; and Shelly's feckless, on-off relationship with her husband.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations:

Warnings: Some academic discussions of sex, a few swear words.

Favorite excerpts:
1970 knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence. In our quietest and loneliest hour the automatic ice-maker in the refrigerator  will click and drop an ice cube, the automatic dishwasher will sigh through its changes, a plane will drone over, the nearest freeway will vibrate the air. Red and white lights will pass in the sky, lights will shine along highways and glance off the windows. There is always a radio that can be turned to some all-night station, or a television set to turn artificial moonlight into the flickering images of the late show. We can put on a turntable whatever consolation we most respond to, Mozart or Copland or the Grateful Dead. 

What I'm reading next: Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier