Where is the Great Mormon Novel? Does Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist fit the bill?

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May 17 2010 7:05 AM

The Great Mormon Novel

Where is it?

Also in Slate, Alan Wolfe considers whether the Book of Mormon succeeds as a work of literature. Plus: Great Magnum photos of Mormons and Mormon sites.

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Perhaps unexpectedly, though, it's the television show, and not the 550-page novel, that explores at greater length the social context that surrounds its central family. Big Love has depicted a wide spectrum of religionists, from cultists in a compound to the most mainstream Utah Mormons. Udall, by contrast, zeroes in on Golden and his clan, focusing on a few critical weeks in the 1970s. We see their world through three principal characters: Golden; Trish, the youngest of his four wives; and Rusty, the rowdiest of his 28 children. Trish married into the family after a series of heartbreaks and hardships and, despite her mother's warnings, she's begun to reconsider. Eleven-year-old Rusty, meanwhile, is struggling, like Trish, with the lack of personal attention that seems inevitable in such a large family. He's become a social outcast at school—the other kids know he's a "plyg"—and his pubescent sexual longings are becoming increasingly awkward: He's got a crush on Trish. Golden, meanwhile, tentatively begins a (mostly chaste) affair.

Udall has a knack for depicting a child's imagination, and Rusty, with his half-cracked fantasies and childish profanity, is easily the most engaging of the book's three central characters. Faye, one of his sisters and principle antagonists, is equally compelling: A loner, she spends hours in a "prayer cave"—made of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals in various states of dismemberment—where she has "intricate conversations with Jesus and the Holy Ghost and other invisible beings," including Joseph Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Old Yeller, and two siblings-to-be who died in childbirth. The clash of Faye's piety with Rusty's first experiments in sacrilege is amusing, but also conveys the power of religious faith in the lives of these children. Faye has a personal and intimate (and perhaps mildly polytheistic) idea of God entirely in keeping with a Mormon upbringing. The joy Rusty takes in blasphemy derives from the strength of the taboo he's breaking. With these characters, Udall expertly handles the free indirect style so that the reader sees the world through their eyes.

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The power of faith is less palpable in the novel's main character. Golden is a sort of accidental polygamist, introduced to the practice late in life by his absentee father. He thinks rarely in the novel about God, and far more about how to keep everyone in his life happy (and, even more often, about how to avoid the unhappy ones). Udall portrays Golden as an everyman drifting through life—a polygamous Frank Bascombe. But this is unconvincing: Surely marrying four women and fathering 28 children requires some real ambition—rooted, one imagines, in the beliefs that demand such things. Those beliefs would no doubt seem strange to most readers and would perhaps make Golden a difficult character to understand. But one of the promises of a great, character-driven novel is just that: One comes to share the experiences of very different people. Udall is capable, I think, of rendering such characters; Rusty and Faye each have an individuality that the novel's most important character lacks.

Which brings me back to the attraction of a great Mormon novel (forget the definite article; as with the broader American variety, there can be more than one). To humanize a group of people that is little understood, a novel can't skimp on what makes those people strange to others—not only the superficial matters, but the interior ones: beliefs and ways of thinking unfamiliar to its readers. By experiencing, through fiction, those differences, readers might begin to see past them.

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