Is there a more culturally distasteful, yet nominally harmless, social practice than polygamy? After all, if a group of consenting adults wants to live together, what’s the big deal? Our right to bear arms is built into the Constitution and we can drink and smoke fatal substances with alacrity. But if two women want to marry the same man, we balk. Ask your run-of-the-mill liberal why they are against polygamy, and you’ll get a wad of inarticulate goobledy-gook. Ask a conservative and you’ll get the paradoxical “the Bible says that marriage is between one man and one woman,” though plural marriages dot the Good Book like beer cans on a New Jersey beach. Even pressed, the Ape cannot formulate a rational argument against polygamy; it’s just freaking creepy. But it’s also just as fascinating--we assume these two things are not unrelated.
Fascinating plus creepy is a helluva combination for a book(witness the Twilight Saga, Hannibal Lecter, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist scratches both itches with wit, pathos, and charm. Its particular trick is to take a sensational, and sensationalized, topic, and treat it with startling…well…banality. Once you get used to the idea that Golden Richards has four wives, it becomes clear that this book isn’t about polygamy; it uses polygamy to underscore the pain, strain, isolation, and complication of all families. The list of complaints is familiar: Golden feels trapped; his wives feel neglected; his children are misunderstood; the family finances are in shambles. So rather than critiquing the “average” American family by making it bizarre, in the vein of Weeds and American Beauty, Udall refracts our understanding of the strangeness of all families.
This is not to say, however, that The Lonely Polygamist doesn’t traffic in strangeness, just that the domestic arrangement does seem to be the source of that strangeness but rather a condenser and intensifier of it. For example, the novel’s opening scene has Golden coming home from work, thinking that his wives have found out about his infidelity. Though rather than dreading the scorn of one wife, there are four waiting in ambush. There are many such instances, and, like the gravitation of planets and stars, the forces here increase exponentially with size; any marital misstep or familial conflict increases the prevailing tension by an order of magnitude.
Udall apparently realized that the resulting miasma of dischord needed levity, because he cuts the seriousness of the novel with entertaining and disarmingly clever prose. Much like the subject, Udall’s sentences practice a generous deceit in that they collapse the exotic with the mundane. The end result is that we come to see that, despite the Richards’ undeniable oddness, that this is family just like any other—only more so.