No discussion of the contemporary Mormon novel could happen today without some comment on Bady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, a nationally-published novel that looks at modern polygamy in Southern Utah. In many ways, The Lonely Polygamist is unlike other contemporary Mormon novels because it does not address contemporary mainstream Mormonism, but rather a fringe group that has no official ties to the Mormon Church. In fact, throughout the novel, the mainstream church is church is characterized as a monolithic sell-out denomination that lacks the authority and blessing of God. At the same time, however, Udall—who comes out of a mainstream tradition—does much to draw parallels between his polygamist sect and mainstream Mormons; in fact, I would argue that the novel itself uses polygamy as a way to exaggerate many of the cultural dilemmas within contemporary mainstream Mormon life: large families, the continuing legitimacy of patriarchy, interaction with non-Mormons, and the construction and definition of cultural boundaries and limitations.
At the same time, however, Udall situates these issues within the broader culture of post-war America. In fact, while Udall’s polygamists are mostly separate from their Southern Utah mainstream community—which itself is largely separate from the rest of America—they nevertheless cannot avoid the intrusion of something like American popular culture. Romance novels, for example, run rampant through the novel, primarily for the way they privilege and romanticize monogamous heterosexuality, but also how they construct and affirm traditional gender roles—which contrasts significantly to the way Udall’s polygamists live, providing even a form of escape for one wife, beset by depression, who consistently fails to find the promised meaning and blessing in her non-traditional marriage.
Also important is the way the novel ties in post-war nuclear weapons into the narrative, which is set in the 1970s with frequent flashbacks to the 1950s. Cancer and deformity abounds in the polygamist community, and Udall does much to tie it to the nuclear fallout many of the characters were exposed to during the peak of US nuclear missile testing. For Udall, the fallout seems to serve as a symbol for a variety of things, particularly the dangers of leaving oneself open to danger. If anything, The Lonely Polygamist is about the preservation of family and community, although not in an isolationist sense. Indeed, Udall’s polygamous family is defined by its willingness to add more members to its folds; however, at the same time, the novel is strongly against the notion of forming communities irresponsibly, of not caring for those who seek refuge within it, or of protecting its boundaries with lies. In this sense, the inclusion of atomic bomb testing in the novel seems apt since it is a symbol of America’s own attempts to protect its borders without taking into account those who might be innocently harmed in its production and execution.
Also, in an important departure from most literary Mormon fiction, The Lonely Polygamist embraces certain postmodern trends of many works of post-War American literature. For example, I see in it much of what Stanley Trachtenberg identified as “postmodern” in his informative introduction to Critical Essays on American Postmodernism. For example, throughout the novel we see meta-fictional moments, although hardly as strongly as we see in, say, American Pastoral and Lolita, both of which present readers their stories framed within another literary work (for Roth it’s a novel, for Nabokov, it’s a confession.) The novel also incorporates dark comedy, an interest in pop culture and pornography, collage-like chapters (told from the points-of-view of the polygamist’s four houses), and interests in both strains of what Gerald Graff identifies in postmodernism: “the apocalyptic and the visionary” (8). More so than anything else, however, I see in The Lonely Polygamist a tendency toward the “hysterical realism” defined by James Wood in his essay “Human, All Too Inhuman” as the
big contemporary novel [...] a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. (41)
The Lonely Polygamist, of course, is not as restless and hysterical as other works—Wood has mainly works like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and DeLillo’s Underworld in mind—but it is certainly large (599 pages) and guilty of, to borrow again from Wood, “cloth[ing] real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them” and telling stories that “defy the laws of persuasion” (42). In this sense, it is like Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel about a Dominican-American geek’s search for true love. Both novels, after all, are essentially realistic—aside from some occasional magical realism—yet indulge in such things as strange coincidences or juxtaposition that seem to defy believability. In The Lonely Polygamist, we see plenty of this brand of realism, such as when Golden Richards, the novel’s protagonist, and his first wife consummate their marriage at the precise moment of a nuclear bomb blast, which showers them with fallout and poisons their blood with a “swarm of radioisotopes” (312).
Against Wood, though, who believes that hysterical realism erases the humanity of characters, I would argue that both The Lonely Polygamist and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao show the potential to show the human side of hysterical realism, a genre that Wood argues is void of human feeling—a lack it covers up with excess. For me, however, I see the hysterical aspects—the excess, the strange coincidences, the improbabilities, the juxtapositions—as only enriching the human aspects in the novels. Through Diaz’s footnotes and character juxtapositions, for example, we are able to learn more about Oscar and his family history, which ultimate makes us sympathize with their struggles. The same is true for Udall’s novel: without its maximalism—its attention to every detail of this family’s life, as well as its seemingly heavy-handed contextualization against nuclear testing, we might find ourselves lost in the facelessness or namelessness of a big family.
Excessiveness is everything in The Lonely Polygamist, and it is its hysterical realism that makes it human.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.
Trachtenberg, Stanley. Introduction. Critical Essays on American Postmodernism. C.K. Hall and Co., 1994. Print.
Udall, Brady. The Lonely Polygamist. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
Wood, James. “Human, All Too Inhuman.” The New Republic. 24 Jul 2000. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.