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California State University, Long Beach Narrative Voice in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose A U D R E Y C. P E T E R S O N In Angle of Repose Wallace Stegner uses a narrative technique that is both older than Fielding and newer than Nabokov. Ever since Henry James expressed a preference for consistency in point of view, or more accurately ever since theorists codified James’s remarks into rules for fiction, it has been not only unfashionable but almost unthinkable for the teller of a tale to “intrude” upon the narrative to make comments. Earlier novelists, from Defoe to Hardy, have been scored for such inartistic practices and then forgiven on the ground of living before the coming of enlightenment.1 Yet in Angle of Repose the narrator is both an old-fashioned commentator and a contemporary manipulator of the fiction. Like Nabokov’s “editor” in Pale Fire he molds his source material into his own creation, but while Nabokov’s mode is satiric, Stegner paradoxically achieves an effect of solid realism. My purpose in this paper is to show how the narrative voice presides over and controls the novel, engaging in commentary which enriches rather than intrudes, and engaging in manipulative strategies without apparent loss of credibility. Stegner accomplishes this tour de force by creating in Lyman Ward a fictional narrator who is himself so believable that the reader comes to accept whatever conventions he dictates. Ward, confined to a wheel­ chair by a painful and crippling bone disease, finds therapy in recreating the lives of his dead grandparents from letters and papers found in their house in Grass Valley, California, where Ward himself grew up. As his research progresses he records his findings on tape. He also records his own personal dilemma — his wife has left him and his son wants him to 1For the best defense of authorial “telling,” see Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Univ. of Chicago Press), 1961. 126 Western American Literature abandon his independence and enter a sanatorium. Within this narrative framework, Ward moves back and forth between past and present, stressing always his thesis that the present has a good deal to learn from the past: “Well, Grandmother, let me back out of this desk and turn around and look at you over there in your walnut frame . . . [Is there] nothing in your life or art to teach a modern or a one-legged man something?”2 Fragments of the grandparents’ story emerge sporadically, rendered through a mixture of telling techniques. Quoting from letters and reminiscences, making wry comments on his own physical plight, carrying on imaginary conversations with his grandmother, Ward slips deftly into the beginnings of third person narration: “The West began for Susan Burling on the last day of 1868, more than a century ago. It had not figured in her plans. She was in love with Art, New York, and Augusta Drake” (p. 32). This appears to be the beginning of omniscient narration, but the narrator’s voice is immediately present again, telling us that he “may as well quote” from Susan’s reminiscences and following the quote with his comments upon it. Gradually longer passages of Susan’s story are rendered by a third person narrator, but Ward’s controlling voice is never entirely absent. Sometimes the narrative is punctuated by brief commentary, sometimes by long digressions, but it never continues for more than twenty pages or so without some intervention by the narrative voice. What makes Stegner’s method unique here is that it combines with apparent ease a number of conventional modes which might not be expected to mix well. In one such method, for example, Lyman Ward as a conventional first person narrator would “tell” all of the novel, both past and present, in his own voice. In another, the author might set up an editorial frame to create verisimilitude, as in a novel like Henry Esmond where Thackeray appears on the title page as the “editor,” or to take a more recent example, in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man where the fictional “scholar” secures the taped story of Jack Crabbe. In this method, Lyman Ward would...


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pp. 125-133
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