I never had an answer to the professor at my school who claimed that there were no great American novels in the latter half of the 20th century. I mean I didn’t argue with him; I just sort of agreed or acquiesced to his confidence and overbearing nature and sort of resigned myself to thinking that he was right and it was just great short stories.
I mean I definitely think he’s full of it. Among Pynchon and Styron and Morrison and plenty of others there’s just no doubt.
Anyway, this novel is right up there with all of it.
The setup of this novel, and I have to say setup because there’s some contrivances at play, is that Lyman Ward, aged and now infirm retired history professor, is writing a biographical novel (of sorts) chronicling the marriage of his grandparents, who settled in the middle of California in the 1870s and 1880s. There they lived in a few mining camps, travelled back and forth to the Northeast, lived in Mexico for a short while, and the grandfather even worked as a mining engineer in Deadwood. Through all of this, together or apart (the grandmother did NOT live in Deadwood) their marriage sustained (and sometimes only sustained), and in the wake of his own divorce and culmination of life (including his musing, ruminations, and consternation about the changes to American life in his own lifetime–this novel was published in 1972 and takes place then) Ward is deeply fascinated by the success of the marriage.
So the novel itself is told in 1970 by Lyman Ward as he gathers his notes, types out his manuscript, and lives his solitary and frustrating life atop a mountain in southern California. But then the novel he is writing emerges, sometimes with Ward the author and narrator dipping in, sometimes in a more removed voice, and sometimes with a conversation between Ward and his 20 year old typist discussing and arguing about how the marriage should be portrayed coming to bear on the story. The result is a beautifully written consideration of two lives seen initially from what Ward calls “the angle of repose,” the natural angle that particle material will take when poured (such as a pile of sand, gravel, and in the case of this novel concrete). This metaphor stands in for the ways in which we see people and understand them to be the naturally occurring versions of themselves without considering how they got to be there, that way, or without considering the process that brought them there. And so Lyman, as a trained historian with a son who teaches facts and figures, is trying to better understand the internal life of especially his grandmother, but the marriage as a whole.