Angle of Repose*

by Wallace Stegner

It rarely fails to happen to me. I board an airplane to take a trip. I sit down next to some young woman, perhaps late college age, (or newly graduated from college). She is devouring a book she can't take her eyes off of even for takeoff. And when she finally finds a stopping point, puts her marker in, & closes the cover with a reflective sigh, she says, "Have you ever read any Stegner? He's just sooooo incredible." I used to answer, "No," until I took it upon myself to read a different Stegner book, Crossing to Safety, when I first moved to Vermont some years ago. I still feel now as I did then: I find Wallace Stegner noticeably weak in the dialog department. And by that I mean not that there is any dearth of dialog, but that it never sounds that genuine to me. It sounds written, if you know what I mean. Perhaps I'm also not as open as some others might be to the kind of stories Wallace Stegner likes to write, as (in both the books I've read of his) he writes with longitudinal perspective about things like married life, generations of children, lifetimes spent in academia—you know, stuff about which Classic Bitch knows nothing.

Once again I must, per usual, temper my criticism with the caveat: Yes, of course Angle of Repose is a good book! It won the Pulitzer Prize, for crying out loud. It is well-written in many ways. Wallace Stegner has executed a very nice frame narration here. Both inside and out of the frame you will find characters who are treated lovingly, and with full respect. The frame is also nicely weighted; at times the reader wants to get back inside of it, but there are plenty of other instances when one is left wanting to pull back outside for some perspective. Plus, both stories dovetail so nicely at the end, engendering a warm sense of closure—which is hard to do in novels, I think. (Salman Rushdie could take a cue here. This is frame narration that actually works!)

Angle of Repose concerns a retired historian who sets out to write a book about his—in many ways unremarkable yet remarkable—grandparents. The exterior of the frame (in which the historian is engaged in the act of researching and writing his book) is set in the very interesting 1970s, while the story that is framed (this is the tale of his grandparents) is set pre–fin de siecle. Each narrative offers perspective on the other, a device to which the protagonist is thankfully not blind.

The final chapter, the last few pages, the last paragraph of Angle of Repose is an absolute tour de force, & is not to be missed. I also find myself again experiencing the synchronicity of reading stuff crafted by Wallace Stegner over 30 years ago that is now strangely topical to my life currently!? This has been happening a lot with books on this list, and I know not whether to chalk it up to psychotherapy, my burgeoning meditation practice, or just assuming the role of Classic Bitch. Anyway, if I've convinced you to read it, and you do, and then you feel like it's speaking directly to you, please let me know so that I can stop worrying about possibly being a paranoid schizophrenic.

*Pulitzer Prize winner for the year 1972.