Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

1.3.13 | | 24 comments

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.

Sources:

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.

24 comments: “Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

  1. William Morris

    I haven’t read The Lonely Polygamist (it’s so dang long). But I can see the same features in Edgar Mint.

    The problem that I often run into with hysterical realism is that those attributes to me come across as pale, uninteresting threads that should be fantasy or science fiction or full-on magical realism instead. It’s a mode of writing that just doesn’t seem to reach me.

  2. BarefootMike

    The Lonely Polygamist is one probably my favorite novel that I have read in the 2010’s. I enjoyed what I found on each and every page.

  3. William Morris

    Th:

    I have. Here is what I wrote about it on GoodReads:

    “Usually when I have to think more than a second about how many stars a work should receive, I take it as a sign that it deserves the lower number. Here I bumped it up to the four because for all it’s precociousness (and I have to say that I’m a little tired of precocious kids and lapses in to speculative fiction* from literary fiction writers (although when it’s done well, it’s fine, it’s just that it’s become a thing now and suddenly it’s okay for literary writers to do it, but do Gene Wolfe or Glen Cook or Orson Scott Card get their due? Not really. At least not from the literary establishment).

    But… the use of illustration is so interesting and the way it fleshes out the narrative so delightful and heart-tugging, the novel deserves a bump up.

    *although give credit to Larsen and his publishers for prominently featuring a quote by Stephen King on the back cover”

    It’s interesting to see that for all that my thinking on literature has changed over the past couple of years, it really hasn’t so much at all after all.

  4. Th.

    .

    I’m still amazed I could still enjoy a novel with a precocious kid at all, let alone so much.

  5. Scott Hales Post author

    I second that about the precocious kid. So much about the novel shouldn’t work, but Udall makes it happen. I plan to reread it sometime this year, along with Edgar Mint, and I look forward to finding details I missed the first time around.

    I’m not sure The Lonely Polygamist is characteristic of the direction I would like to see contemporary Mormon fiction take, but I think it shows one potential direction that is worth exploring further. I’m also glad that it has been so well received by Mormon literature enthusiasts. Even though it is long, it is well-worth the effort–as Mike rightly suggests. I didn’t really mind the length.

  6. Jettboy

    “a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.”
    ” restless and hysterical . . . 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”
    “the excess, the strange coincidences, the improbabilities, the juxtapositions”

    This used to be defined as Soap Opera, but seems now to be given literary names. I am not a fan of them and find them silly and unproductive. To be sure, I find modern literature to be equally mundane and superficial as what is found on television during the daytime. My wife started reading the book and found it offensive and filled with sex and questionable language. Since I trust her as a critic, there isn’t any way I will ever pick this one up.

  7. Scott Hales

    I’m not sure a soap opera is the first thing I would compare The Lonely Polygamist to, although the connection isn’t too inappropriate considering postmodernism’s tendency to draw from “low-culture” for inspiration. The over-the-tops aspects of television definitely informs aspects of hysterical realism, which I think someone like David Foster Wallace would agree with. I personally saw in TLP more the influence of 1970s family sitcoms than soap operas. But those could be placed on the same level as soap operas.

    The question is: what’s wrong with literature influenced by soap operas? As I suggest in the post, TLP capitalizes on exaggeration (a milder form of the same kinds of exaggeration tactics used in soap operas) to make certain points about polygamy and mainstream Mormon life. That’s making good use of “mass culture” if you ask me.

  8. Moriah Jovan

    Jettboy: You say “soap opera” like it’s a bad thing. Melodrama is part of our DNA as humans. I could point to Shakespeare, but he was simply a more effective practitioner of it than, say, medieval jesters and troubadours. Or Homer, because what do you think the Iliad and the Odyssey are? Then came Pamela and Fanny Hill, arguably the first novels (i.e., readable melodrama). If you think Days of Our Lives is the defining manifestation of soap opera, then your problem is the label, not the form.

  9. Mahonri Stewart

    I think one Charles Dickens is a great example of literary soap opera and perhaps even as hysterical realism. Sure, Dickens is a little over the top, but his characters, stories, and themes still resonate very deeply with me. That kind of Victorian excess in storytelling (which can currently be found in Downton Abbey) I sometimes can find to be quite thrilling, which is why Dickens was such a strong influence on me.

    I keep meaning to pick up some Udall. Thanks for the reminder…

  10. Scott Hales

    I think the Dickens connection is spot on. Postmoderns may reject aspects of his worldview, but his maximalist tendencies are echoed in their works.

    Come to think of it, I think we need to look more into the works of Dickens for the origins of Mormon fiction. The more I study the early Mormon novel and Mormon reading habits from the turn of the century, the more I realize how influential Dickens was in the Mormon understanding of the novel. His works were almost always mentioned in lists of recommended books for Latter-day Saint readers in publications like the Improvement Era. I know A Tale of Two Cities and Nicholas Nickleby were part of the early 20th century MIA reading courses at one time or another, along with the works of George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper. Nephi Anderson, particularly, was inspired by Dickens.

    Dickens may very well be the Father of Mormon Literature…

  11. Scott Hales

    Maybe we could say that Mormon Fic is the Byatt-esque lovechild of Dickens and Austen. I haven’t read enough of Austen to say one way or the other, though. I think her name comes up less often than Dickens in the historical record, but now that you mention it, I’m going to keep an eye out.

  12. William Morris

    Pamela is a major precursor of all novels. But I think Dickens and Austen are more direct influences on the key streams of Mormon fiction.

  13. Moriah Jovan

    Wm, I will admit to being stuck on it because I’ve been reading a bunch of 18th Century lit in the course of writing my current WIP.

  14. Mahonri Stewart

    I think Austen is probably the most widely read author among Mormon women (and romantic leaning men like myself). Dickens is read less, I think, but I’m pretty sure adaptations of his work have been widely viewed (I’m a big BBC mini-series fan myself).

    Personally, though, Dickens had just as big of an impact on me. His last completed novel _Our Mutual Friend_ is among my top three novels with C.S. Lewis’ _Till We Have Faces_ and Austen’s _Persuasion_ (Oh. My. Heck! What a Mormon list of books is that?).

  15. Scott Hales

    I think that is certainly true about Mormons today, and I would maybe say that someone like Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler is the author most Mormon men read to day–if they read fiction at all. I’m speaking specifically about Mormon fiction writers at the turn of the century. Dickens was very much on the radar then–and not just among the writers.

  16. William Morris

    I should clarify that I mentioned Austen because courtship narratives form a major part of late 19th century Mormon fiction. But I don’t know if those Mormon writers got that mode directly from Austen or if it was filtered through other works first to them (for example, magazines).

  17. Scott Hales

    I wouldn’t backseat Jane Austen at all, but you may be right that she’s more of a grandmother figure–influencing Mormon writers through the second-rate popular novelists who drew from her courtship narratives,

    Maybe we should start something like the AMV Mormon Novel Genome Project…

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