Monday, July 26, 2010
two recent novels featuring Mormon Fundamentalism/polygamy: David Ebershoff's THE 19TH WIFE and Brady Udall's THE LONELY POLYGAMIST
For someone who loves Big Love (the HBO series) and books as much as I do, this has been a banner year of polygamous titillation (because, let's face it--as Brady Udall said in his Bookslut interview, the reason we're fascinated by polygamy is, "in one word," sex). Well, for me, it's been a banner week, since I've plowed through both of these hefty novels in a matter of days. As desperate as I was to read The 19th Wife, which came out in 2009, I coyly waited until I could get it in paperback; The Lonely Polygamist was sent to me by the good people at Norton (thanks, Norton!).
The ground covered is, ostensibly, similar--Mormon Fundamentalism, or, as they're often more simply known, polygamy, since the core tenant that has separated the Latter-Day Saints from the Fundamentalists is adherence to the 19th century practice of "plural marriage," which amounts to one husband and multiple wives in practice. And although much in both books will be very familiar to anyone as obsessed with Big Love as, erm, me, the tone and approach are very different, and make the two novels interesting to read in counterpoint.
David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife is woven of side-by-side portraits of Fundamentalist polygamy in the 1840s, at its advent, and in the present day. The modern narrator, Jordan, is one of the "lost boys"--like many other polygamist boys, he was driven off the compound he grew up on for a minor infraction and was left to fend for himself in the secular world. (This happens to lots of boys--otherwise, there wouldn't be enough women on the compound for all the remaining men to have multiple wives.) Now, at twenty, Jordan has struggled through the darkest period of his life: homelessness, surviving by sex trade, learning to live in a world that doesn't follow the Principle. He's come through the worst, found a job, made some friends, discovered his sexuality, and is just about living normally--until he learns his father has been shot, and Jordan's mother, his 19th wife, is being charged with murder.
Underlying Jordan's narrative is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the supposed 19th wife of Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet, who led the pioneers to Utah. Ann Eliza is famous for having left the Church and divorcing Brigham, and becoming an outspoken proponent of cracking down on polygamy.
Although the book is long, it is a very quick page-turning kind of read. Although (in my humble opinion) the book could have lost a few chapters, overall it is entertaining and informative. The story of Ann Eliza Ebershoff tells is largely in agreement with historical fact, and his lengthy Author's Note at the end is worth a read, since he breaks down where he embellished--his note makes his novel seem, to me, at least, both respectful and even-handed. The historical narrative is an interesting perspective on the origins of the LDS Church--of course, taking into account that it's really focusing on one specific facet (and that is men having sex with multiple women). It sounds salacious, but it is what the book is (quite seriously) about: the implications of a world where a woman can be at any moment replaced, and where men can guarantee their families' place in eternity by honoring lust for new women.
Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist takes the flip side of the story: sex may be the reason we're fascinated with polygamy, but in practice the polygamist lifestyle isn't necessarily sexy or fun at all. Golden Richards, the antihero, is a hapless man in his early 40s, husband to four women and father to 28 (living) children. Golden just can't keep it together--he can't quite make ends meet, and has resorted to building a whorehouse for cash; his wives each see him on average once every two weeks; he only remembers all his children's names by chanting them like a prayer. Meanwhile, he has a secret crush on his boss's wife--he's never chosen a woman for himself before, and the feeling of attraction is new--but he'll never have any kind of affair with her, since he got gum stuck in his pubic hair and hasn't been able to get it out for weeks. Basically, Golden's life is a big mess. A totally, completely sexless mess.
The Lonely Polygamist strings together Golden's narrative along those of his fourth wife, Trish, the youngest and least sure about her polygamist lifestyle, and one of his sons, Rusty, known as "the terrorist," who everyone in the family treats like a pariah. From their three perspectives emerges the story of a family where everyone's trying really hard and means really well, but where life is just a lot of rough patches stitched together.
Udall's polygamists are more benign than the fictional Mesadale compound in The 19th Wife, or, say, the Juniper Creek compound in Big Love. The Prophet of Udall's Church is a kind and sympathetic old man, and there are no references to the sinister elements (child rape, forced marriage, government fraud, etc) that come out in other polygamy stories. The Richards family will remind you more of Bill Henrickson, the "assimilated" polygamist family at the center of Big Love. This is perhaps not a coincidence; in 1998, Udall wrote this article (entitled "Big Love") about the time he spent observing an assimilated polygamist family for Esquire. For my fellow Big Love adherents, many bells will ring.
While I honestly felt The Lonely Polygamist was (way) too long for the story it had to tell, Udall's writing is elegant and his characters very absorbing. The cumulative effect of the book, though, is to make the reader wonder why anyone, male or female, would be willing to live a polygamous lifestyle. Interestingly, a number of Udall's adult polygamists characters have come to polygamy (as opposed to being born into it)--I'm not sure that, coming to the end of the book, having seen all the daily horrors and indignities and lonelinesses practitioners face, I understand why they come to the arrangement, or why they stay. Despite this bafflement, I was now about to close the book and not find out what happened to all the characters. Udall writes very--very--personally. It's hard not to get sucked in.
Now that these two novels have come out in quick succession, I wonder if the market has been saturated, or if more polygamy stories will come out. As Udall says in the Bookslut interview, the polygamy fascination comes down to the sex, so it seems unlikely we (you know, "we") will get tired for a while. If anybody knows of any others, I'm always open to recommendations :)