Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day Novel

Theresa Doucet is a very good writer. I hope she keeps writing, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Let me first say how I came to this novel, A LOST ARGUMENT.

I follow a few Mormon blogs, including some a little more scholarly than others. (I aspire.) Since I do some writing myself, I also pay particular attention to new writers in the Mormon tradition, since that's my background, too. On one of the blogs, I noticed a discussion about this book. I followed some hyperlinks. Consequently, I learned that Doucet is quite capable in the realm of philosophy. (I aspire to that a little bit, too.) I also noticed that she participates in Goodreads, so I sent her a friend request. She graciously accepted. Sometime later, Goodreads sent me some of her reviews, including one of ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner. She had given it what, in my opinion, was a less than gracious rating, so I engaged her about that. I found her responses articulate and well-argued, and I was duly impressed. Subsequently, she suggested perhaps we ought to exchange books. I would read hers and she would read one of mine. She sent me A LOST ARGUMENT. So now I will attempt to review it and tell you what I think.

The protagonist of A LOST ARGUMENT is Marguerite Farnsworth. She lives in Arizona. She's a young LDS (member of the church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints) student going to BYU, the Mormon university in Provo, Utah. She has a brother and sister who have other lives and more or less ignore Marguerite. She has a father, a cardiologist, who works incessantly. Her mother, too, seems too busy for Marguerite. That says a lot about her life right there.

The first sentence of the book's prologue sets forth, in my opinion, the book's premise. "Maybe I'm strange and perverse," Marguerite says, "but I've always thought there was something sexy about a compelling argument."

Well, that pretty much wraps up what the book focuses on: Marguerite's need for intimacy (sex) in the context of argumentation. Of course, it all takes some time for her to realize that that's exactly what she wants and needs, so I think it's strange for it to be in the prologue. Also, right off, it seems odd that she would expect to find anything relative to either sex or arguments at BYU. After all, I knew to rescue my fiancé, to whom I've now been married going on forty-one years, from BYU for exactly those reasons. But Marguerite is young and naïve, possibly more than I or my fiancé were, even though it appears she is much more intelligent and knowledgeable, especially as it relates to history and philosophy.

To me, Marguerite is needy. Plain and simple. That is, if it's possible for one committed so lovingly to philosophy to be anything that's plain and simple, she is. And it's probably not. "… I'm ugly and foolish," Marguerite says, "and love beauty and wisdom, his beauty and wisdom, because there's none in me."

Needy. It isn't that she's short of funds; that's not what I mean by needy. It's more that she needs love --- including sexual intimacy --- with someone with whom she can have a serious argument --- serious arguments. Argumentation is central to Marguerite's being. She needs this kind of love so much she is almost tempted to beg for it, to grovel for it, to totally compromise herself for it. Or to die for it, both metaphorically and literally. It relates to her several bouts of depression. The problem, however, is that she thinks that in her traditional Mormon culture the two ideas are anathema. They're not, but that's another matter altogether. But that's where the central tension of the book is, in her need to have someone she can be sexually intimate with who will help her address her crises of knowledge. She wants it, but she can't legitimately have it. Not and keep her faith and all that goes with it. "I thought about it," Marguerite says, "and after a while said, 'I would be happy if, just for once, someone would come up to me and say, "You know, Marguerite, I've seen your work, I see what you're trying to do, and it's beautiful." If only someone saw beauty in me.'" Plus, she asks God, "Why did you make me so ugly and unlovable, so unworthy inside and out?"

I enjoyed Marguerite's trips abroad, especially to Germany, since I spent two years --- yeah, you guessed it --- there. I enjoyed the characters she created. She has a talent for painting characters who have their own voices, who are unique and interesting. Her characters include not only the people she interacted with, her friends and family, but also wide-ranging philosophers and authors and their far-flung works.

I liked this passage in particular: "The day before she left for Utah, Marguerite awoke to the sound of something buzzing and rattling against her window. She peered through the blinds and saw it was a large brown grasshopper that had gotten itself trapped between the blinds and the glass windowpane. It was propelling itself against the glass over and over again, thinking it was moving toward freedom, only to find itself continually blocked and bruised and instead. Marguerite felt instant sympathy for it." I love that Marguerite saved the grasshopper --- I love that it was a grasshopper over against an ant --- and I imagine that there will always be someone there to save Marguerite too.

(One particular peccadillo: Theresa writes "…after I graduated high school…" I know everybody says that now instead of "I graduated from high school." However, I have to ask: how many times can a particular high school be graduated and in what sense are they graduated?)

In today's literary field, this book is an anomaly. The bulk of contemporary readers want something facile, something exceedingly fast-paced and like the hot-and-bothered romances Marguerite alludes to in the prologue. Such readers are impatient and, probably, less educated. However, what Marguerite has to say can't be said that way. It has more depth and takes greater thought than that. In fact, to some extent the novel seems to gloss over interesting details that I wanted to know better. I would have preferred to see segments of Marguerite's transformation more fleshed out, answering more of my questions, giving more dialogue and intimate interaction between herself and others.

As a writer, I would have preferred to see Theresa write segments of Marguerite's stories more focused than trying to cover so much ground so fast. Or, at least, to weed out less important aspects of her story and concentrate more on the pith illustrated in certain scenes. Or, maybe, I just need to go back and read it all again. In any event, this is a book about a young woman trying to reconcile her tradition and religion with truth. In my opinion, truth is a slippery subject. I like what Genly Ai says in Ursula Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS: truth is a matter of the imagination. I recommend you read the book and make your judgments about it.

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