Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

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.

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