That is not to say, though, that Stegner is above confusing us in other ways. He does this for at least one reason: Stegner is a historian and historical research can be confusing when there is a shortage of information, leaving the historian with nothing else to do but speculate. As a result, Lyman goes back and forth between imagining his grandmother’s life and quoting her letters directly. This, in turn, is a subtle way of presenting us with the problem of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes, there are simply gaps in the timeline. In addition, Lyman is unreliable because of his love and loyalty toward his subject matter: the grandmother who raised him. Can we reasonably expect a completely accurate history from a someone who is emotionally affected by what he is researching? Can we rely upon him to tell the world the truth about his grandmother? I don’t believe so. I like to think that my own grandmothers were saints, but they probably weren’t. Lyman says as much about Susan, but he cannot bring himself to depict his grandmother as someone capable of sexual infidelity.
(WARNING: If you have not read the book yet, but intend to, you should stop reading this blog entry NOW.)
We, as readers, however, can discuss Susan Ward’s temptations and did so during the book group’s meeting. Most of the group felt that Susan’s tryst with Frank was limited to emotional infidelity, and stopped short of sex. Others could see how Frank’s suicide after the funeral for Agnes was due not only to the fact that he was the reason for Susan’s neglect of her child, but because the child was his, too. It comes down to how well we can rely upon Lyman to tell us the truth about his grandmother, and I do not believe that he can. If Stegner wanted us to see Agnes as clearly the flesh and blood of Susan and Oliver, he would have described Agnes in a way that made her similar in appearance and temperament to her siblings. Tellingly, he did not do that. Agnes was different. She was different enough so that she could have been fathered by Frank.
Finally, I enjoyed the fact that Stegner includes approximately two dozen literary references in Angle of Repose. On page 421 of the Penguin edition I described above, Stegner has Susan attempting to read War and Peace which, given her character’s cultured background, makes perfect sense and is historically accurate as Tolstoy‘s masterpiece was published in 1869. Is Stegner showing off a bit? If he is, I can’t say that he is more guilty of that sort of thing than a lot of other authors. If you love books, how can you refrain from referring to them in your own book?
The book group’s next selection takes us from the arid lands of the American West to The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller.
- Wallace Stegner on change, tradition and reform (heartoftheriver.wordpress.com)