Chapter 43: “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner (1972)

“I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.”

Wow, has it been a long time or what? I’ve got to be honest—I’m not taking the Pulitzer Project nearly as seriously as I did when Joshua and I began. When we first started out, we had wide eyes, full of hope and promise. Now, we’re just bogged down by life, I guess. He’s in seminary and married, doing seminarian and married life stuff; I’m just not all that interested in this project anymore.

I know why, too. It’s actually a really embarrassing reason—I hate reading. It’s pathetic. When you consider that I was an English major in university, when you consider that all of my closest friends growing up were fictional characters in novels, when you consider all of the free time I have on my own hands now that I’ve been unemployed for a couple months, you’d think I’d be reading furiously away. But I hate reading. And if I think about it really hard, I can tell you a million excuses about how I hate reading because it reminds me of being a lonely kid, or because books were the only things that comforted me when I was hiding from my abusive alcoholic parents underneath my bed sheets with a flashlight and now they serve as horrible reminders of that time in my life, or how I just have better things to do with my time now that I’m an adult. But the ugly truth of the matter is that I hate reading because it’s boring.

I can think of a hundred other things I’d much rather be doing than reading a book: playing a video game, walking my dog, watching TV, cooking, cleaning, riding my bike, shopping at thrift stores, listening to music—anything, really.

Of course, every now and then, I pick up a book that clears away the cobwebs in my mind and actually challenges me. They shake me up, get me thinking, change my perspectives or beliefs, and make me really engage with the words on the page. There have been several books along this Pulitzer journey that have been that for me—Olive Kitteridge, Tinkers, Gilead, Now In November, and The Fixer to name a few.

Wallace Stegner’s 1972 Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, however, not of those books.

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It took me a Pulitzer Project record-breaking four months to finish this bear of a novel. However, to my credit, I can proudly say that it took nowhere near the amount of time it took me to finish Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (two whole years). To Wallace Stegner’s credit, I actually didn’t mind Angle of Repose. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like it—but I didn’t hate it. I was completely indifferent to it, which is probably the reason it took me so long to finish it.

I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters, about their lives, about their stories.

The novel is about a historian, Lyman Ward, who is a wheelchair-ridden, despondent, curmudgeonly old man who attempts to cope with his divorce and the estrangement of his son by delving into his family’s history—presumably to feel some sort of contact with some sort of family, albeit it dead and long-forgotten. This character also serves as the omniscient narrator of the lives and histories of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward, which takes up the vast bulk of the novel. Interspersed are snippets of Lyman’s life, his relationship with his caretaker, his daily goings on.

Honestly, I really wish this novel would have been about him rather than his grandparents. His life was actually interesting. His life I actually felt a sort-of connection to. I felt sorry for him, I got angry with him, I laughed at his grumpiness—I reacted to him. Every other character…? Nothing. I was an emotional blank slate.

And I’m not sure if this was Stegner’s fault or not. I’m not sure if I took issue his writing, or with his story. I want to say that the story was just too hard to work with, because there were parts of the book that were gorgeously written; and I want to say that the writing was to blame because there were parts of the story that could have been much more interesting than they actually were.

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In geological terms, an “angle of repose” is the maximum slope, measured in degrees from the horizontal, at which loose solid material will remain in place without sliding. But Stegner’s Angle of Repose isn’t indicative of that definition; it just about broke me—it really laid me flat, and I slipped away from the Pulitzer Project for a long time.

It took me four months to finish the book, and even when I did finish it, I couldn’t bring myself to start reading a Pulitzer for another month and a half.

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