For millions of people, myself included, 2016 has been a brutal political year. The election of Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States reinforced all the worst impulses of human nature, and taught young white men that merciless bullying is the way to get what you want. The next four years will be painful.
As is my habit in times of grief, I return to favorite novels. Which is why I find myself re-reading Wallace Stegner's masterpiece Angle of Repose after many years. One of my treasured memories from Northwestern is of a fellow student reading Angle of Repose in the dining hall and laughing uproariously as she turned the pages. I can now confirm that the novel is hilarious.
And wise. And shrewd. And timeless.
All that granted, and appreciated, Stegner is not the writer to choose if you are looking for escapism. Indeed, he touches upon themes that are very relevant to the looming disgrace that will be Donald Trump's presidency.
1.) Take this passage, from Chapter 5 of the "Leadville" section (pgs. 243-253 in the Penguin paperback edition): "Here sit you geologists charged with surveying the resources of the Public Domain, and here sit your friends whose whole business it is to get hold of such information, preferably before it's published. It seems to me to offer a nice ethical problem." Given that a woman named Helen Hunt Jackson poses this dilemma to a group of men, in the 1870s, we can surmise that Stegner had feminist leanings. (The novel is mostly a recollection of the US West being built, in the 1870s and 1880s.)
It is also clear that Stegner knows all about perverse incentives, double dealing, and conflicts of interest likely to be resolved dishonorably. These will be the hallmarks of the Trump years, on a scale never seen before in US history. While not exactly comforting to find allusions to such things in a work of great literature, at the very least we can take heart that Trump's venality is nothing new. Stegner had Trump's type pegged long ago. He is nothing special.
2. Trump will eventually, and mercifully, be in the rearview mirror. There is no sense in always dwelling on him. For Stegner also understands the timeless, mysterious dynamics of marriage. These dynamics will remain ever with us. From the same chapter, which describes a gathering of distinguished men inside a rustic home: "She" [Oliver Ward's wife Susan Burling Ward] wished he had not taken off his coat, hot as the cabin was. With his brown corded forearms and his sunburned forehead he seemed one fitted for merely physical actions, like a man one might hire to get work done, not one who could devise policy and direct the actions of others. With a sad, defensive certainty she saw that he lacked some quality of elegance and ease, some fineness of perception, that these others had. It seemed to her that he sat like a boy among men, earnest and honest, but lacking in nimbleness of mind."
Harsh but honest. By the end of this chapter Susan feels guilty about these thoughts, which describes the cycle perfectly.
Stegner knew whereof he spoke, and had the grace and poise to describe it. We can ask no more of our writers than this.