AGAINST THE WAYS and means of movies, what chance has fiction? Not much, suggests this novel by Wallace Stegner. Recapitulation is a capitulation to cinema vision, cinema technique. It is a book whose dominating metaphor is the movie, and which pursues that metaphor so doggedly that its failure is a criticism of film itself.
Bruce Mason, 67, ex-ambassador and the State Department's leading Arabist, returns to Salt Lake City to bury his last surviving relative. But he hardly knew Aunt Margaret, and realizes that he wouldn't have come had he not a more pressing need.
A nearer person must be interred: his younger self, who -- he now finds -- has become a set of mental newsreels. He must darken forever that flickering figure who was picked on in school, loved his mother and hated his father, held odd jobs, learned tennis and sex and Latin, and finally abandoned his friends, his home, his willing girl, to go East and become a success.
The action is minimal. Mason arrives in town, consults with the funeral director, drives around to see how the place has changed, spends the night in a hotel, and attends Aunt Margaret's funeral the next morning. He does learn that someone has been trying to call him; there is a hint (which Mason strangely fails to catch) that his best friend and his best girl of those by-gone days may now be married. But he never makes the return call that we're waiting for, and this thin current of plot sinks into the desert sand.
Such slight forward momentum can be overborne by the retrograde motion of flashback, and a series of flashbacks is what Recapitulation chiefly is. Indeed, the main time frame of the story -- Mason's visit to Salt Lake City -- turns out to be a slim excuse for a guided tour through the newsreel archives. This design flouts the conventional wisdom of the craft: let present action run until some background to it is necessary; defer flashback until the reader has been made hungry for its contents.
Here present action comes to nothing; all we have are shards of the past to assemble. Bruce, the ashamed son of a liquor smuggler. Bruce stealing a cabbage.Bruce feeling a girl in a crowd. The jagged pieces fall into place until we see young Bruce whole.
But he has been gone for half a century; and why -- apart from a novelist's convenience -- the Bruce of today should systematically remember all this is more than the reader can imagine. Just as puzzling as his prodigious remembering is the mechanical way his memory works.
The elderly Bruce, sitting in a restaurant, sees a busboy clear a table. Nothing could be more ordinary. Then we read: "Click. Involuntary narrowing of the eyes."
A space break follows, then a flashback to the young Bruce, himself a busboy 50 years before. A long sequence is remembered (we are asked to believe) in exquisite detail -- every word, each sense perception. There is nothing wrong with such a detailed flashback. What is wrong is making it a memory.
In movies -- which usually lack narrators -- memory must be made to serve: someone looks out a window and sees, on the lawn, himself as a child. But in fiction, flashback need not, often should not, work this way. A third-person novel, which this book is, can simply tell us what happened, never pretending that someone is reliving these events in his mind. This is truer to how we think than the remembered flashback that we agree to accept (granting the art its limits) in movies.
Straight from the movies, too, is that mechanical transition into flashback: "Click." We see it repeatedly: "With a refocusing of his eyes he made it a year or two earlier." At the end of a flashback, "the screen breaks up in sheets of flame," and in fact memory can be switched off at bedtime -- "he turned off the past with the light" -- but only to be replaced by dreamed documentary: "The camera pans along the cliff."
Despite irruptions of pedantry, the language is often startlingly good: "His childhood had been a disease that had produced no antibodies. Forget for a moment to be humorous or ironic about it, and it could flare up like a chronic sinus." And many of the remembered vignettes are fine set pieces -- for instance, a game of strip poker and its aftermath. A different, better novel could have been built by arranging these events chronologically -- the story of Bruce Mason's youth -- and leaving out the Bruce Mason of 50 years later.
That would free us from the camera and the computer, another term for memory in this novel -- the goddess and god of our technology. The mind is no such simple machine as either of these.