martes, 1 de octubre de 2013

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose (Penguin Classics, 2000)
by Wallace Stegner
USA, 1971

Considering the degree to which the award-winning American novelist and nonfiction writer and self-proclaimed "westerner for life" [xiii] Wallace Stegner is revered in certain circles today, a disinterested observer might well suspect that John Leonard's 1972 New York Times smackdown of Angle of Repose as "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo, an Ed Muskie in the fiction sweepstakes,"  while undeniably a great piece of trash talk for anybody old enough to appreciate the period insults, is probably a bit harsh in its condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  However, I'm not so sure that Leonard wasn't on to something.  There is, to be fair, plenty to like about Angle of Repose even if its sprawling, 557-page multigenerational family drama set in various places in the 19th and 20th century American West and Mexico tends to wear mighty thin at times.  I enjoyed, for example, Stegner's fine eye for the surprising but perfectly observed detail ("the hand that held the lines were freckled like tortillas" [173]), his evocation of place and space on both a local and a grand scale, and his curmudgeonly emeritus history professor Lyman Ward's ongoing interrogation of the nature of historical sources (here, musing about his taciturn grandfather's probable response to a key event early in his marriage):  "Or I suppose that is what he felt.  The fact is, I don't know.  He is the silent character in this cast, he did not defend himself when he thought he was wronged, and he left no novels, stories, drawings, or reminiscences to speak for him.  I only assume what he felt, from knowing him as an old man" (223).  In a work that's been both praised and vilified for its uncredited interpolation of first-person historical sources lifted from the letters of the 19th century western writer/illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, though, I found it all too ironic that what should have been the most real life character in this ambitious historical fiction hybrid felt like the most fictional of all regardless of how much her high maintenance ways, her "Quaker 'thee'" grating talking quirk (333), and her quest to bring Eastern civilization to the uncultured West might have mirrored the historical reality.  More to the point re: Stegner's artistic choices, I also felt really let down by the way this initially unpredictable novel of place eventually devolved into a rather pro forma tale of two dysfunctional marriages.  In other words, I'll have to get back to you on whether "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo" actually tells it like it is or is really more like coded 1972 speak for "Jodi Picoult called, and she wants her fucking book back."  Disappointing.

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

The underwhelming Angle of Repose was read as part of a conversation with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails.  His review can be found here.


16 comentarios:

  1. Beaten to the draw, I see. I didn't feel as let down as you although it was not quite the stone classic I'd been led to expect. My favourite pieces were the Lyman Ward pieces as well, and I didn't feel there was much to the whole 'uncredited letters' storm as he did acknowledge that he was using original source material and there seems to have been a desire on the part of some of Mary Hallock Foote's descendants to keep her identity secret.
    I hope to post in the next couple of days, slightly behind the curve as usual.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Séamus, I might have been a little rougher with Stegner at the end than he deserved. Maybe it wasn't all that bad a book overall per se. It was a frustrating experience, though, because even though I enjoyed much of his writing at the sentence and the paragraph level (the scene at the end having to do with the destruction of the rose bed was quite powerful, I thought), some of his big picture decisions were utter failures to me and the grandmother character was largely unconvincing to me except for some of the passages that were delivered as letters. In any event, looking forward to your recap. Thanks for reading with me again!

      Eliminar
    2. Finally posted yesterday, and although I agree that passages are unconvincing I felt that this was to some extent a failing on the part of Lyman Ward more than Wallace Stegner. I think it clear that he brings his own layers of denial and prejudice to his storytelling.
      Apologies in advance for the long, rambling nature of my post - http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2013/10/angle-of-repose.html

      Eliminar
    3. Séamus, I can see part of that blame being the narrator's rather than Stegner's. However, I don't think I'll be rereading the book anytime soon to see how/where we split the difference! Anyway, glad you enjoyed the work more than I did (not that I hated it or anything either)--will be around to check out your post soon (have been on the road of late).

      Eliminar
  2. I had not heard of this work before but I was curious and looked at some descriptions. I am thinking that at the very least it has been an influence on an entire host lesser (assuming this book is indeed greater) epic, multigenerational popular novels.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. The book is a huge favorite on many best-of lists, Brian, but I can't say I understand the level of love it's received over the years. I'll stick with Madame Bovary and Effi Briest myself when I'm up for a dysfunctional marraiage saga, but maybe this book fills a need for people pining for a dysfunctional marraige saga set amid the tumbleweeds. Influential? Sure, probably, but bah nonetheless.

      Eliminar
    2. I never heard of it. You call it influential; where do you think its influence can be noticed?

      Eliminar
    3. Miguel, I actually was just agreeing with Brian about the book's probable influence based on the recent popularity of "multigenerational" family dramas--don't have any specifics about Angle of Repose. Stegner more generally is a pretty big deal to many people, though; he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and his body of work on the U.S. West and the fact that he oversaw a creative writing program at Stanford in which he came into contact with people like Larry McMurtry and Edward Abbey might be seen as having been influential in different wasy. On this novel itself, in addition to winning the Pulitzer, it was also listed as one of the 100 best of the 20th century on the Modern Library's list and this and other Stegner titles routinely appear on newspaper lists about the best books written about the American West.

      Eliminar
  3. How timely. I found a copy of this on the street a couple of weeks ago, and promptly handed it over to the other inhabitant of the house, who's fascinated with all things Western. She's engrossed in it (and somewhere around page 400 at this point), but all I've had in the way of an opinion so far are grunts and exasperated sighs. I suppose I'll decide whether or not to read it when she reaches page 557 and can be a bit more precise.

    ResponderEliminar
  4. Scott, "exasperated sighs" sounds about right. Like I mentioned to Séamus above, I found it a frustrating read because it has some really fine lines ("In that Edith Wharton version of New York they ran around safe, platonic, and happy to galleries, theaters, and concerts," on page 42, is a good example of how unobtrusively on the mark Stegner can be about one of his protagonists' lifelong friendship with a married couple from back East) along with inconsistent characterization and a plot that didn't deliver for me in the end--the disappointing elements all hard to quantify, I know. I'd still like to read one of Stegner's nonfiction works (maybe Beyond the Hundredth Meridian on John Wesley Powell) one day, but I can't imagine I'll be returning to his fiction anytime soon. Interested to hear what your housemate eventually makes of it, though!

    ResponderEliminar
  5. I... have never heard of this book. Ever. Or, rather, I must have at some point heard of it and promptly forgotten. It actually seems like something I could like, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to go back to multi-generational epics. There was a time when I read too many... I think I'm still a bit burned out. Especially if you say it ultimately becomes predictable.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Biblibio, I think I would have liked Angle of Repose more if I was a fan of the whole multigenerational thing or more at ease with historical fiction in general (I almost always prefer history to its fictional cousin). The book does have attention-grabbing writing in spots, but the ending and some of the plot decisions made me think that the parts were better than the whole. Another thing that grated on me here and there is that the narrator is supposed to be 58 but sometimes acts as if he's 88 when spouting off about women or Berkeley radicals and such--didn't really feel convinced by his voice at times although he's not a bad character in other ways. In any event, thanks for the visit and the comment--Séamus from Vapour Trails should have his own post up any day now, so I encourage you to check out his post for what should be a more forgiving reaction. Cheers!

      Eliminar
  6. It's been too many years since I've read ANGLE, but I'm tempted to rise to its defense, even if such a defense is impossible for me without a re-read. I recall Stegner's rather tragic view of marriage and think he got something right about the ethics involved in making such a complicated thing as matrimony work.

    ResponderEliminar
  7. Kevin, I'm sure you're not the only sharp guy who'd want to defend the book--Stegner has way more fans than detractors as far as I can tell, and I did like elements of Angle of Repose. That being said, I guess I didn't find the novelist or the novel nearly as profound on the topic of marriage as you did (esp. after having read Wharton's The Age of Innocence and James' The Ambassadors earlier in the year, both a lot more provocative than this work to me); what I thought he did particularly well, though, was giving a voice to the "silent character" in the cast, Lyman Ward's grandfather. That character was the most vivid of all to me. Anyway, thanks for providing a reliable character witness for the defense (always good to hear from you, by the way). Cheers!

    ResponderEliminar
  8. I have a copy of this somewhere at the back of my many stacks of books. I must have bought it ten years ago, but have never felt the inclination actually to read it (or to give it away, which is stranger). Your review doesn't encourage me.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Obooki, I'm nothing if not unencouraging. On the other hand, this is the first of the three big name U.S. author penned books I've read this year that has struck me as a disappointment, so maybe I shouldn't complain too much (that's a pretty good success rate compared to your own Contemporary Literature Survey project, for example, wouldn't you agree?). In any event, I've read way worse--way, way worse.

      Eliminar