When Everything Was Cresting: On Wallace Stegner’s “Recapitulation”

Wallace Stegner sitting for an interview

The highway entering Salt Lake City from the west curves around the southern end of Great Salt Lake past Black Rock and the ratty beaches, swings north away from the smoke of the smelter towns, veers toward the dry lake bed where a long time ago the domes of the Saltair Pavilion used to rise like an Arabic exhalation, and straightens out eastward again. Ahead, across the white flats, the city is a mirage, or a mural: metropolitan towers, then houses and channeled streets, and then the mountain wall.

Driving into that, smelling the foul, exciting salt-flat odor, Bruce Mason began to feel like the newsreel diver whom the reversed projector sucks feet first out of his splash.

Wallace Stegner, Recapitulation

Who are the people populating our pasts? Are our parents still our parents? What of the lovers we might have shared days of passion with? Old friendships? What is the self, recalled? It is tempting to think of these as fact, carryovers from a spent reality, and this is how most people probably think – it would be, more or less, the truth, in any case. Outside of psychosis, memories are anchored to lived experience; it is only time and bodies that inflict change upon whatever remains. But time nibbles away at the peripheries, always, and bodies are as unreliable as the emotions they produce. Even if memories are proof of life, they are not immutable. We constantly edit, revise, ink out, and suppress memories in order to protect ourselves from their contents. This is either conscious behavior or, at times, some shadowy rearguard action of the subconscious. Trauma is downplayed and/or blotted out, faces meld with other faces, and we enliven certain events with happiness that may or may not have been actual, or make grimmer what may have been, in reality, neutral. Looking back, we find ourselves witness to a parade of things invented, distorted and colored; any future-aimed act of imagination anchored to what’s come before.

Somewhat grim proceedings, to be sure. However, it fits, since much of Wallace Stegner’s 1979 novel Recapitulation has a dark tenor to its pages, as the past and present merge and contradict in its protagonist’s mind. The book follows an elderly Bruce Mason, an ex-US Ambassador who returns to Salt Lake City to oversee the burial of his aunt, whom he barely knows. Regardless, she is attached (however weakly) to his former life in the city where he spent the better portion of his young adulthood, and so he carries out the obligation. The novel follows his brief stay in the city and contains a rather threadbare plot: he spends a few days attending to the aunt’s funeral arrangements and wandering the city, visiting old haunts. Nothing all that momentous happens…that is, if “momentous” means car chases, shootouts, and other high-octane dramatics. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens” on the outside, and is instead driven by character – specifically, by the emotions and reminisces of Mason as he attempts to reconcile who he was as a boy/young man with who he became.

Throughout his visit, Mason is pelted by memories of an old self, old relations, as well as the old Salt Lake City, which he attempts to resurrect in his mind’s eye many times, only for the present to assert itself and reduce his former stomping grounds to sheer memory. Wallace Stegner sets the book in the 1970s while Mason’s memories are set in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Much has happened in the interim, and Mason is caught in a state of – well, it would be mourning, if it weren’t for his conflicted feelings on the past. One gets the sense that even as he yearns for the city of his youth, there’s too much trauma attached to it that he can’t fully endorse its accompanying nostalgia, as Wallace Stegner implies:

Had he expected that the city would stand still in fact as it had in his mind, a Pompeii silenced and preserved as it was before neon, diesel buses, streamlined cars, balloon tires, parking meters? Before television, before even radio in anything but its crystal-to-superheterodyne form? Before the Fall? Before sin and death? Did he think he could walk down Main Street as into a black-and-white, silent, wheels-running-backward 1920s news-reel?

Apparently he did. He wanted the womb kept warm.

Nevertheless, there were some things, passing First South, that he carefully did not look for.

At Fourth South, where rehabilitation ended and the old shabbiness resumed, he was not tempted to go on into the shabbiness in search of familiarity. Instead, he crossed the street to the post office and started back up the other side. Most of what he walked past on his way back to the hotel was not there. It was as if the things he passed were inventions or dreams. But if inventions, persuasive; if dreams, indelible.

While he covers much ground, the main players of his re-lived dramas are his parents, Harry Mason (a criminal specializing in black-market trades) and Elsa Mason (a stay-at-home mom who suffers her husband’s faults and adores Bruce); his friends Joe Mulder (Bruce’s old best friend) and Jack Bailey (a Lothario Bruce is both fascinated with and repelled by); and Nola Gordon, an old flame who eventually rejects Bruce for Bailey. Wallace Stegner sketches a few other minor characters such as Chet, Bruce’s brother; Holly, a rich dilettante who briefly captures Bruce’s affections before Nola comes along; and various girls, teachers, athletes, etc. who influence a young Bruce before a shockingly short span of time in which his entire family dies and, in the midst of all this, Nola dumps him. This slew of loss drives Bruce out of the city, and into a career as a lawyer-cum-politician, for over forty years until the events of the novel take place.

The portrait that arises of Bruce Mason is highly subjective. Wallace Stegner’s narration is largely third person-omniscient, but taken in a close, over-the-shoulder way, with dips into first-person, stylized dreamscapes, and rarely leaves Bruce’s perspective. He is much troubled by his flawed, overbearing father and clearly hasn’t gotten over Nola completely, which color their portrayal in recollections, but this is tempered by his own doubt over the accuracy of his memories, and acknowledgement of serious errors fueled by youthful inexperience. The characters who helped form him, hurts and all, are as fleshed-out and objectively portrayed as he can afford to make them, given his limitations, and it helps Stegner that his protagonist is a thoughtful, intelligent and artistic man, with plenty of age and experience to balance out the past with fairness and deep musings on life, death and relationships. Even if one doesn’t “like” Mason at story’s end, it is undeniable that he has matured, reached the top of his field, and accomplished things of real significance; and, even more importantly, he eventually understands the wisdom of moving on from the past, something people too often re-live over and over again to their detriment.

In fact, it’s easy not to be enamored with Mason, since his youth is full of unsavory details, from his copping a feel of a woman before boarding a train as a teenager, to his eventual emotional desertion of Nola. Their relationship occupies much of the book, and although they are enthralled, mystified and aroused by each other, it is uncertain if they are truly in love, since they are a study in contrasts, in many respects. He is intellectual, somewhat foppish, unreligious; she is passionate, sensual and a salt of the earth type hailing from a tribe of rural Mormons. He loves art; she hasn’t much time for it, despite her musical gifts. His sexual life is tormented and idealized, while her physical needs are immediate and uncomplicated. The cliché “Opposites Attract” is dissected and examined here to a degree that I’ve rarely read in fiction. The affair is observed with such meticulousness that their not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper end is poignantly inevitable. Although she leaves him for Bailey (Mason never finds out if they lasted together) it is Bruce who, in spirit, abandons Nola – leaving her to wilt in Salt Lake City while he attends law school in Minneapolis. He can only half-ass pretentious letters to her, and yearn for her when apart only to dry out once together. A fateful stay at a cabin with Bailey and a girl of his is the proverbial nail in the coffin. Bailey has pursued Nola before, but a game of strip poker unmasks his lust, leading to Bruce’s impotent rebuttals of the pair’s attraction to each other.

At story’s end, Wallace Stegner gives Bruce a chance to reconnect with Joe Mulder, but he ultimately declines, leaving the city in a spell of rain, burying his past – and all its fateful happenings – with his aunt. He comes to important realizations about himself, and muses on the efficacy of leaving stones unturned:

An undocumented life had its limitations, but also its advantages. He was not bound by verifiable facts. What he liked about the past he could coat with clear plastic, and preserve it from scratching, fading, and dust. What he did not like, he could either black out or revise. Memory, sometimes a preservative, sometimes a censor’s stamp, could also be an art form.

That Bruce Mason finds a way to satisfy himself, despite his many traumas, might serve as a lesson to those who treat bad memories like scabs, picking at them so often that the deformations never heal. It isn’t a “happy” ending, but a realistic one, and potentially devastating for a reader who wants Mason to not just reconnect with the past, but confront it, head-on. What is significant, however, is that he knows such a desire is fraught with its share of emotional dangers (at his age, is it really worth the risk?), and he has matured to the point that the image of two septuagenarians reminiscing over the “sun-myth” of their youth is nothing compared to its actuality, so what would be the point? Other men might be compelled to, but Bruce Mason is unlike other men, as Stegner has so indelibly made sure of.

Wallace Stegner is often labelled as a nature writer, based largely on his reputation as a biographer/descriptor of the American West and heartland, as well as his efforts at conservation. But this book (as well as his short stories) proves him to be just as able at man’s interior landscapes – mostly with somewhat extraordinary people like ex-ambassador Bruce Mason, here, and his most famous (re)creation, Susan Burling Ward via Lyman Ward, from Angle of Repose. Here is Mason reflecting on the price the Salt Lake City visit incurs on his vision of himself:

He felt its relationship to himself so strongly that he became defensive and resistant. It couldn’t be that he actually yearned backward to the limited life he had known in this place. For more than forty years he had lived where the world was most dangerous, at the uneasy edges where nations slid down or were heaved up like the earth’s plates in collision. He had had to devote himself to cultures and languages not his own, and to problems the very reverse of personal. He had given his life, or most of it, to social and political Medicare, he had attended a thousand meetings with his attaché case full of Band-Aids. He had been not a person but a representative, interchangeable with other representatives, trained and disciplined toward imperturbability, even while being spat at for his color or for the flag on his fender, even while being driven through streets vicious with sniper fire. Yet here he had spent the whole afternoon and evening walking around the edges of this preserve of the memory, fascinated by images out of his immaturity and by the fragrance of lost possibility.

Of course, the novel is rife with the sort of physical descriptions quoted in this review’s opening (look at that first paragraph’s unforced flow, how it mimics the physical travel it describes, ending so aptly on the final placement of “wall”), particularly when Bruce visits Nola’s Mormon family out in the country. In this regard, Wallace Stegner is nearly matchless, as his travels were famously extensive, and few knew America’s variety of terrains on a more intimate level. Of the canonized Americans, Steinbeck might be his closest peer, with Hemingway and Twain as clear antecedents.

Lost in the shadow of Angle of Repose and the more accessible Crossing to Safety, Recapitulation is no less sophisticated in its attention to the affect/effect of memory and one’s relations to the past. Even if, at the end, the reader is disappointed in old Bruce Mason for his flaws, one cannot claim to have not known him, in full, nor the world in which he walked and walks. As for old Wallace Stegner: few writers can freshen descriptions of landscapes with as many interesting metaphors, or personalize history like the literary historian that he was. The man is, undoubtedly, good – don’t miss out.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Ezekiel Yu: Realism vs. Magic: On John Sayles’s “Men with Guns” (1997)Where David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” (2021) Fails, Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

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