For Gieser, the main character of Swiss author Max Frisch’s short piece “Man in the Holocene,” printed in the New Yorker in 1980, “Novels . . . deal with people and their relationships with themselves and others, with fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society, etc., as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.” In Wallace Stegner’s twelfth novel, Recapitulation, the main character is not unhappy, nor is the world in which he lives “fixed for all time.” Bruce Mason dominates this novel; all the other characters are introduced through his relationship to them. Mason, a retired United States diplomat, OPEC specialist, editor of a prestigious journal, and sometime representative for the Department of State at important meetings, returns to Salt Lake City, the home of his youth, to bury his deceased aunt, his last, though not close relative. Stegner immediately opens Mason’s thoughts to the reader. As he drives out of the desert and into the Salt Lake Valley, Mason begins to feel like a newsreel being run backward; he has no plan to revive memories of his youth, but in his unpreparedness, they occur.
Just as quickly, Stegner begins to evoke his setting, both past and present, creating an authenticity of time and place. The blending of present-day Salt Lake City and Bruce Mason contrast to the city and individual of forty-five years earlier. His first task, to make the funeral arrangements, brings Mason to a mansion-turned-mortuary, the location of his introduction to a bohemian, spontaneous life, Salt Lake City-style. Through the filter of Mason’s memory, the reader meets Holly, the young woman who once occupied the tower rooms of the mansion. Mason, characteristic of the control one might assume would govern his life, controls the picture of Holly which he gives to the reader. This reservation of description keeps the secondary characters throughout the novel from achieving full dimension, but it allows Mason to become more rounded through inference rather than direct exposition. Stegner narrates the novel in the third person, yet to the reader, it is Mason who tells the tale. The images draw the narrator into such intimate proximity to the main character that the two cannot be differentiated.
Stegner sets Mason’s reunion with Holly in the former apartment, now bare except for the body of a woman prepared for burial. The presence of death threatens Mason’s recollection upon entering and leaving the room. Acting as both the opening and closing valve of those memories which seem to have no purpose, the corpse bears close relationship to Mason’s mission in Salt Lake City and his own time of life, when memory may merely obscure living his responsible life as he has become accustomed to do. Stegner’s use of language makes such moments neither maudlin nor boring. As Mason leaves the room, the sound of his footsteps first on the hard floor, then, once outside the door, on the carpeted stairs, draws...
(The entire section is 1265 words.)