"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

I really love Mormonism, and I mean that in a completely earnest, non-ironic way.

I don’t believe in God anymore, but I had a really formative Jesus phase and I was mostly educated at religious institutions and nearly all my close friends are very religious. This means that I tend to see the best in religions without needing to take their supernatural claims seriously. So while, duh, the golden plates that Joseph Smith found but would not show to anyone were not real, and—obvi—the American Indians are not the descendants of ancient Jews who sailed here from Jerusalem... Mormonism just appeals to me in all its industriousness and boy-scoutishness. I love the American-ness of it. The idea that the Western United States is sacred, and that the Garden of Eden was in wild Missouri just resonates with me as the beautiful nonsense that it is.

I once wrote somewhere in spitting distance of 75,000 terrible words of a novel about an American religious leader based not-so-loosely on Joseph Smith the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college.

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist is a fine book. It’s about the head of a polygamist household. The narrative focuses primarily on him, his youngest wife, and one of the disaffected children on the family. He has an affair. He builds a brothel. The son gets into explosives…  

It’s… fine.

It reminds me of The Art of Fielding in that it’s solid and enjoyable, but thin and structurally sloppy. The style itself is technically sound but a little aimless. He compensates for a lack of psychological depth and narrative momentum by over-explaining the inner lives of his characters as though that kind of obsessive repetition were poetry. It’s a grasp at Franzen that’s a little painfully reminiscent to me of another (ahem) struggling stylist.

But the largest problem for me lies in the novels hapless titular character. Golden is just too passive as a character. He is described as a victim of his upbringing and environment and seems to only watch, blinking dimly as a polygamous life is first built up and then carries on around him. While it’s obviously true that we're the function of our experiences, the novel doesn't remember that our pasts effect how we think, not just how we behave, and I wanted Golden to be a stronger and more passionate adherent to his lifestyle.

I don't buy a character who lives that kind of lifestyle and is so seemingly ambivalent about it. You don't often meet people who hold extremist, traditionalist (and illegal and complicated!) religious beliefs just 'cause. They're usually kind of into it, you know?

I was looking forward to a book that explored what it feels like to really believe something seemingly unusual and other--to be a part of a community like that. But Golden isn't an interested or active participant in a religious community or even, most of the time, this novel.

Bill Henrickson, the husband from the HBO series Big Love was a more interesting character to me. He wasn't always a great husband (to be generous). But that was part of what made him fascinating to watch. That show embraced the ugly aspects of a polygamist lifestyle along with the loving ones, rather than using the set-up as a convenient conceit for telling a “big family” family story. Bill was a passionate advocate and evangelist for polygamy. He was in charge of his own life. His lifestyle seemed like a choice, at least to him. As a result it was a show about religion and religious people in a way that this novel just is not.


  1. Hi, Spencer.

    A month later, I'm just finishing the book and trying to make heads or tails out of it. Have much the same mixed feelings and thoughts about it that you seem to have (and somewhat the same background).

    Most useful thing I've found? Udall's article on polygamy in Esquire, published in 1998 and reprinted here.

    1. Hey, thank you--that's fascinating! And I'm glad to have my reading checked against someone else's. It was a very strangely frustrating book.