Finding an Angle of Repose

“I may not know who I am, but I know where I’m from.” ~Wallace Stegner

“Wisdom…is knowing what you have to accept.” ~Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose

Reading, writing, and living take us on all sorts of enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable tangents. As un undergraduate student at Anderson University, I took an interest in the writing, speaking, and lifestyle of Shane Claiborne, who started The Simple Way, which is an inner-city communal living organization in the tradition of New Monasticism. In interacting with him on a visit, he kept mentioning this guy named Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and writer. So I started reading Berry and could not get enough of him. The vision he offers of living in the contemporary world is maybe still the best I have found. But his literary mentor, a former professor at Stanford, was a guy named Wallace Stegner. I figured I ought to read him, too, which is how I came across Angle of Repose,  a Western novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. (The New York Times showed its protest against the Pulitzer decision by hardly mentioning the novel or its author in their own pages.)

Call me crazy, but I read the 500-plus-page novel twice in six months. The first time I read it to read it, the second time I read it more closely to in order to write a paper on it. The book might be as slow as it is long, but so very worth it, nonetheless. Just as life often feels this way, the book offers painful disappointment after painful disappointment for its main characters.

An angle of repose is an angle at which a rock stops rolling down a hill. Stegner uses that as a metaphor throughout the novel to represent the period in one’s life or even in a marriage when one reaches a spot that he or she (or perhaps both) stop moving forward, a place in which one accepts the limitations of life or love or work. Today’s world might call this “settling,” but I’m not sure that fully explains what Stegner had in mind.

Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Angle of Repose weaves in and out of different voices. Stegner received some criticism for his use of real letters from Mary Hallock Foote. The main voice of the novel, the narrator’s, is that of Lyman Ward, a disabled scholar who is researching his artist and writer grandmother to, in some ways, make sense of his own life and marriage, and especially a wife that left him for another man. Foote’s letters are used as the letters from Lyman’s grandmother, Susan Ward, to her best friend, Augusta, in which she often laments the “failures” of her husband, Oliver, who Augusta warned her not to marry, and the slow, painful realization that she will never return to the intellectual life of the East Coast, instead destined for further “exile” in mining camps spanning from the Dakotas to Colorado and Idaho and even down to Mexico.

Through and in that pain, she is drawn to her husband’s best friend and co-worker, Frank: younger than her but a hard worker and skilled conversationalist who returns her affection. Lyman pieces together the evidence, and speculates that something happened, although he is not sure what, and he knows that Susan felt shame about the relationship. It is her and Oliver’s “angle of repose” that saves the actual marriage; Lyman can only hope to find such an angle if he is to receive his own wife back, who wants to reconcile.

It is the complex, nuanced maneuvering of these big life decisions that pains Lyman, his assistant Shelly, Susan, Oliver, and Frank from 1870 to 1970, but it doesn’t feel that different for me today. What about you? Where to live? What work to pursue? Who or if to marry? If or when to procreate? Which is more important, one’s work or his family? Will I settle into an angle of repose or continue seeking thrills? These decisions stress me out at times, but there also doesn’t seem to be all that much else under the sun, does there? This is life, and as Lyman says, there is wisdom in the accepting of our limits.

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