The Biggest Love of All

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (TLP) left me in a love conundrum.

Until page 545 of this ribald and entertaining, mostly marital arts novel, Udall sounds a lot like a Mormon John Irving. Then you read the following lines, the climax of the novel, and you realize he’s also an LDS John Donne:

“Because this, after all, was the basic truth they all chose to live by: that love was no finite commodity. That it was not subject to the cruel reckoning of addition and subtraction, that to give to one did not necessarily mean to take from another; that the heart, in its infinite capacity–even the confused and cheating heart of the man in front of her, even the paltry thing now clenched and faltering inside her own chest–could open itself to all who would enter, like a house with windows and doors thrown wide, like the heart of God itself, vast and accommodating and holy, a mansion of rooms without number, full of multitudes without end.”

When I finished this paragraph I dropped the bookmarker between these pages, closed the book and blinked tears from my eyes. Yes, I said to myself. Again … Yes. But what happened next could not have been more Brady Udall. While pondering these beautiful words, none other than Christian, the character from Moulin Rouge, appeared in my mind’s eye and ear, saying:

“Above all things I believe in love. Love is like oxygen. Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong! All you need is Love! “

It was then that I wondered whether the pearls on Udall’s sublime string of sentiments were any more valuable than the ridiculous lyrics strung together by Christian along his pop candy necklace.

I concluded that TLP was an even more clever work than I thought as it knowingly undermines its own climactic statement by its two main supporting characters, Trish and Rusty. Each is driven to extreme, destructive behavior because the love of Golden Richards is, as a matter of fact, not infinite like the love of God, but a finite commodity, ladled out like rations to his love-starved spouses and offspring who can never get enough. Richards no doubt felt infinite love for each member of his family, a family so large it resembled a football team listed in a program line-up–the novel even comes with a flow chart inserted after the title page, reminding the reader of the players on the “offensive and defensive” teams. His love for his handicapped daughter Glory (appearance, no doubt, courtesy of Flannery O’Connor) epitomizes this. But his family members could only feel Golden’s love in finite ways, limited by the boundaries of his time and space.

So I ask you, what is love, if not a feeling expressed, yet also received, in time and space? Have I misread TLP?

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12 Responses to The Biggest Love of All

  1. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    People do know that there is a real Golden Richards, professional football player, right?

    He grew up in Utah, played for Granite High School, then BYU and the University of Hawaii, and as a pro for the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.

    I haven’t read the book, but I have read reviews, and was surprised at the name of the title character. I figured, however, that it must be some kind of coincidence, but since you say football is tied into the story in some way, I have to wonder.

    Is THE LONELY POLYGAMIST libel, or is it biography?

  2. Ed Snow says:

    Kathleen, I think it’s pretty funny myself! I kept thinking about some cross between J.Golden and Willard Richards during the whole story.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Oh, actually football isn’t tied to the story–that was me riffing on the chart at the beginning of the book. You need a chart to keep track of the characters, "like a football line-up".

  4. Ed Snow says:

    I’ve tweaked the post to make it more clear that no football is involved.

  5. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Golden Richards was an outstanding wide receiver for the Cowboys and Bears. After his football career ended, he had some problems with drugs, starting with an addiction to pain killers. He did some jail time, I think, something like forged checks to pay for drugs. He’s clean now, I understand. All FWIW. Any football fan would know all about him, so I wonder about naming a character that. Looking forward to my new novel, about a missionary named LaVell Edwards.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I sent my copy of [i]TLP [/i]to my daughter so I can’t go to page 545 to refresh myself on the exact plot situation, but I will say that I don’t see the Udall excerpt as anything like the excerpt from [i]Moulin Rouge[/i]. The [i]MR[/i] version of love is something you fall into and don’t really have control over, but Udall very markedly states that the version of love described in this paragraph "was the basic truth they all chose to live by." Emphasis, for me, is on "chose," which I think is an observation that holds up thematically. I read this passage as claiming that love is not finite in spite of man’s finite ability to live up to it: Humans have the capacity to love many even if they are limited in time and space.

    I think you are suggesting that Trish and Rusty (who is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read) need Golden’s love like they need oxygen. But as I understood the text, their need brings them down rather than "lift[ing them] up where they belong." So the comparison isn’t exact for me.

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Lisa, I agree with your points. My riff isn’t an exhaustive treatment of the topic–my hope was to allow that to happen in discussion.

    I found it interesting that my mind would make such a connection, that it would switch from Udall’s thoughts–elegant, inspiring, grand– to Christian’s expressions–trite quotes from pop music. And you’re right, pop culture presents love as something that happens to you, whereas Udall presents it as a choice. But this convergence of thoughts made me consider how brittle our ideas about love are, that even the most considered and literate reflections, like Udall’s, can fall down flat in the face of reality. I’m convinced we can’t have that kind of universal love. We might think our love is big enough to fill the universe yet small enough to fit in the cup of our hands, but giving (ie, creating) love comes down to spending time and space with someone.

    Christian agape does inspire me to love the entire world, even people I’ll never meet, but this can only be received one person, one minute, one room at a time.

  8. Katya says:

    "But there does remain the fact that Christ deferred any reward to his Father."

    Did he? I know he deferred all [i]glory[/i] to his Father (cf. Moses 4:2), but glory isn’t the only motivation for doing something.

    You can tell your kids that Santa brought their toys, thus deferring the credit (glory), but you’ll still feel joy at their happiness. You can’t defer that aspect of the reward, and I don’t think you’d be more Christlike even if you could.

  9. Ed Snow says:

    Kathleen, I was just thinking about college football starting up again in September and I realized, OF COURSE THERE’S A FOOTBALL ANGLE IN TLP! Golden Richards plays football in High School and is injured. So, yes, something must be going on there.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I see what you mean, Ed, and find it a solid point. The passage you quote is, indeed, one of those concepts that make us feel good when we tape it to our refrigerators, but, in the final analysis, it doesn’t match the reality we live. Trish and Rusty needed time and space, as you say, from the love they choose-but they were let them down. One settled; one, well, lets not spoil it for those who haven’t read it.

    Katya, I don’t think I implied Jesus wouldn’t feel joy, or that he tried to defer it. I said he got nothing (no-thing) out of his sacrifice. I wasn’t speaking of emotional satisfaction because, if we’re going to travel down that road, we’d have to weigh in his emotional pain over the failure of mankind to accept his offering. We can’t. I certainly understand the disagreement w. me, since its the Doctrine of Lisa–and heaven help us if we ever had to rely on that! But really, I don’t see the value in this particular argument, or most doctrinal arguments. There is no winner to be declared. Its all a matter of perspective, a matter of what we focus on. and none of it as it relates to [i]TLP [/i]or to my point, which, I repeat, is that there is beauty even in the recognition of our limitations.

    I hate to rain on anyone’s parade about the Captcha, but it appears one of my posts has been deleted. :(

  11. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Ah, I take that back about the deleted post. Katya, were we talking about this on under another topic? I need more rest.

  12. Katya says:

    Sorry, I responded to the wrong thread.

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