Remembering Laughter

Wallace Stegner’s literary debut is so cruelly restrained and so achingly poignant that it is hard to believe that it was long out of print. Much against my wishes or expectations, the sombre mood of Remembering Laughter spilled over into my days. As stupid as it sounds, the only reason I picked this book over the celebrated Angle of Repose, was that the former is shorter in length. Since I am always short of reading time these days, I tend to look for short novels. I didn’t reckon that it would affect my mood as much as it did. [There are no major spoilers in this post. The story, a mere 150 pages, thrives not on specific events but on the way the characters respond to them.]

Remembering Laughter tells of a love triangle between Alec Stuart, a farmer on the Midwestern prairie, his wife Margaret and her sister Elspeth who visits from Scotland. It is exasperating to find that there are no cathartic arguments, no reconciliatory gestures. Instead, the three principals continue living in a prison of puritan reserve, stoically swallowing their guilt, their rebellion and their vengefulness. It is depressing to read, but it is all too real: Don’t we all know someone whose mind and body have dried up under years of unexpressed anger, or sorrow, or guilt?

It was one of those stories that affects one without warning, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which brings wave upon wave of sadness to the reader’s shore. I liked Laughter very much, and admire it for having the power to affect me so completely. But I found myself strained (or as Bilbo would say, “Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”) and wondered what it was in the story, or in the words, that hit so close to home. I am ready again for something lighter.

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6 thoughts on “Remembering Laughter”

  1. I hate to admit that I sometimes look at the length of a book and that is the determing factor over whether I will read it or not (but for me it is sheer laziness). I haven’t read Stegner, but I have Angle of Repose and Crossing to Saftey–hopefully I will read one this year. He strikes me as someone who is a thoughtful writer and doesn’t give easy solutions to life’s problems.

  2. Danielle: Just saw Angle of Repose in the library a few hours ago. Didn’t have the heart to pick it up. I guess it must wait for a time when I can take all the emotional overload that comes with Stegner.

    Litlove: See, now I don’t feel that bad. Still, as a diversion, I issued Martin Page’s “How I Became Stupid” ;-). It might be the right time for some happy silliness.

    Mandarine: It was surprising, really. I’m trying to think about what I have in common with three middle-aged characters in a love triangle that takes place on a prairie farm. I can’t put my finger on anything tangible. May be, it is Stegner’s language: spare and direct, like crystal. Or perhaps, it is the horror I have about emotional repression, cultivated from novels past.

  3. I like Stegner very much, but have not heard of this novel. The others I’ve read seem to reach some kind of understanding about the character’s lives by the end, and so although there is sadness and difficulty, you’re also left feeling as though you’ve seen something important about the human condition.

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