Author: Therese Doucet
Publisher: Strange Violins Editions
Release Date: September 3, 2011
Pages: 260 pg (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0983748410 (e-book ISBN: 978-0-983-74840-3)
Genre: Literary fiction
Price: $10.01 (paperback)/$4.99 (Kindle Edition; also available through SmashWords in a number of formats)
Around a month and a half ago, I got an email from Therese Doucet (twitter account @Strviolin) asking if I would be interested in a free review copy of her newly self-published novel, A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day Novel. After a bit of email communication problems, I finally learned of her request through twitter. I noted that I would certainly be glad to consider it, but that she should know a few things:
- I’ve never done a book review before, and I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about.
- I’m a remarkably poor and slow reader, and so I might never get around to finishing.
As far as I’m concerned, both of these points are still true. However, another thing is also true that hasn’t been in the past: I’ve gotten an Amazon Kindle, and with it, I’ve magically been able to get into books. (It may not sound like much to you, but I’ve read 8 novels on my Kindle since I got one in August, whereas I probably wouldn’t have finished half that number of books in a year pre-Kindle.) So, mission accomplished on point 2…but how about point 1?
As its subtitle alludes, A Lost Argument is a Latter-day novel. As that peculiar phrasing might further imply, it is a Latter-day Saint, or Mormon, novel. But as its short description at Amazon goes, things don’t end quite so Mormon:
The summer after her freshman year at all-Mormon Brigham Young University, Marguerite Farnsworth falls in love with philosophy by way of falling in love with an atheist philosophy student. Her search for Truth (with a capital T), God, the meaning of life, and a boyfriend leads her away from religious belief, but along the way she learns there are things even atheists can have faith in.
Of course, there’s a question about that: how much does one’s Mormonism depend on the content of her religious belief? If someone ceases to believe, then is she not a Mormon anymore?
It’s difficult to say who this book would be best for. A Lost Argument had an ever-so-brief review at Main Street Plaza, which definitely represents the ex-Mormon side of the Mormon blogging world. It also was mentioned (and had a snippet posted) at Friendly Atheist, which as that site’s title implies, is a site for (mostly non-Mormon background) atheists.
But I feel that it’s not just “for” atheists or “for” ex-Mormons. In fact, I’d say that both of those articles fail to capture the spirit of the novel. Even the short Amazon description falls into that trap.
In fact, to say “author Therese Doucet is an ex-Mormon” might seem to say a lot for the novel, but such a statement also betrays the novel. This is a novel where, if you hadn’t read an Amazon summary candidly expressing that protagonist Marguerite eventually falls away from religious belief, then up through the very end of the novel, you wouldn’t know what her final decisions would be. As a result, this is a novel where, even as you are told relatively upfront what will happen, you still don’t know how it happens, or when.
…Maybe the fact that Marguerite eventually does fall away from religious belief will alienate currently believing Mormons (although I wouldn’t like to think that), but I think that anyone from a Mormon background who has had questions, anyone who has had doubts, anyone who has fallen in love with Truth and wanted to search for it and come to a very different place than they expected to (whether in the end they could still characterize that “place” as falling within “Mormonism” or “religion” or “faith” in any sense…or not)…I think they would be interested in this novel.
Doucet begins the prologue of the novel thusly:
Maybe I’m strange and perverse, but I’ve always thought there was something sexy about a compelling argument. Especially one that threatens to persuade you of something you would never have imagined yourself believing. Especially when that something you never imagined you could believe threatens to tear through the fabric of basic assumptions that wraps around your life and holds it together, to unravel and unwind it.
In romance novels…this is precisely the function of romance: to undo a person, overwhelm and conquer her, to overcome her resistance and leave her hair in disarray, her clothes torn and disheveled…
In this way, the prologue says a lot and more about the novel itself. This is a novel about love and romance…but it is also a novel about beliefs and philosophy. And that’s another sense in which it’s difficult to say who this book would be best for. I don’t know what people look for in romance novels, so I can’t say if this would satisfy them as a “romance novel.” Similarly, I don’t know what turns people away from romance novels, so I can’t say whether or not this would turn someone who’s not looking for a romance novel away.
Whatever its status as a novel about romance, what about being a novel of ideas? I think this is the most endearing part of the novel to me. It all begins blog post that Therese wrote: “Novels In Which Nothing Happens.”
…Of the critiques I’ve received on my last novel from various people who’ve read it, the most troubling one for me is that “almost nothing happens.” Of course, in writing it, it seemed to me that quite a bit happens in the story. People have conversations! They have thoughts, ideas even! They feel things, decide things, change their minds about things. To me, those all seem like things that happen.
…In any case, I wonder: Does someone have to die or have sex in order for a book to count as having something happen in it? Can it count if people almost die or almost have sex, or if they just want to die or want to have sex?
After revisiting that post, it seemed to me that A Lost Argument was Doucet’s way of answering those questions. I for one think that things happen in the novel, but I also think that having ideas, deciding things, changing minds, etc., are things that can happen. (So you’ll just have to read to see if anyone dies or has sex…if that’s what you’re looking for instead.)
What kind of ideas do people (or, more specifically, Marguerite) have in A Lost Argument? If you read the blog article I linked above (please do), you can get a glimpse. Doucet alludes to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain as a well-known novel in which (by the average joe’s judgment), nothing happens (but a lot of ideas are hashed out). Funnily enough, Marguerite is reading The Magic Mountain in the novel, and she compares some events in her life to it. Doucet references James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and coincidentally, Marguerite later compares herself to Stephen Dedalus.
I’m not saying that there’s anything funny with how Marguerite’s life seems suspiciously similar to Therese’s (in the prologue, Therese [qua author] coyly writes, “some might call [A Lost Argument] a true story…”), but I do think what’s fascinating to me is how much, regardless of whether A Lost Argument is a novel in which nothing happens or not, it actually is a novel in which everything happens to be an allusion. To this end, I think Doucet has embedded a liberal arts curriculum within novel format.
See, the titular “lost argument” ostensibly occurs before the half-way point of the novel. And it doesn’t seem as if Marguerite is truly affected by it. Sure, she’s shaken, but at that point, it seems as if she’s not able to comprehend the nature of the attack.
In fact, the effects of the “lost” argument spread out over the rest of the novel independently of the original context in which the argument was had. Marguerite is finishing up her studies at BYU…pursuing philosophy…going to Germany…going to the University of Chicago. Over this entire period of time, the people in her life change with the seasons (to the extent that it seems that the people with whom she interacts on a daily basis aren’t really the most important parts), but she’s still engaging in a dialogue.
With Kant. With Kierkegaard. With Hegel, Plato, Socrates, Levinas, the Marquis de Sade, with Joyce, with Mann, and with a number of authors and philosophers whom I can’t even recall at this point. What happens is that this argument that occurs relatively early in the novel burrows within Marguerite’s mind, and takes years to blossom. What happens in A Lost Argument is that Marguerite transforms and matures (fitfully and awkwardly, at times) through a dialogue not only with the other living characters, but with the conflicting parts of herself, and with writers and philosophers dead and gone whose ideas still live on.
When I was reading A Lost Argument, I was tempted at several points to compare or contrast Marguerite to myself to see if her experience matched mine. There were some points where, yes, Marguerite’s experience seemed to resonate with me, where I could recall times where I said things that Marguerite was saying or thought things she was saying. At the same time, there were times when her experience seemed foreign to me. There were times when I cringed at Marguerite’s experiences because I wanted this to be The Ex-Mormon Novel or The Mormon Novel or whatever the ideal is, and I thought that certain lines would alienate certain audiences.
But at some point, I stopped trying to do that, because I realized that Marguerite is her own person: she doesn’t need to fit some picture-perfect box, because none of us do.
And the same is true for A Lost Argument. I can say that there’s Mormonism in it, but is it a Mormon novel? I can say that in the end, Marguerite loses her religious beliefs, but is it an ex-Mormon or atheist novel? I can say that Marguerite has crushes and falls in love, but is it a romance novel? I can say that Marguerite name-drops a dozen philosophers, but is it an intro to philosophy primer?
The problem really is that to the extent to which you have certain expectations about what any of these things should be (Mormon novel, ex-Mormon novel, romance, philosophical adventure), then you’re going to miss out on the other aspects of what this novel has to offer.
Anyway, I’ve spent 1800 words saying nothing; why not just check the book out already?
“You can read sample chapters from the book here – if anyone wants to get a feel for what the writing’s like and the level of editing/typesetting. (I know people are hesitant about self-pubbed books because they have a bad rep for poor editing and design. I used to work in editing professionally, so I’m hopeful my book ended up above par as far as that goes.)
Also, it just occurred to me I could set up a 20% discount on Smashwords in case anyone might be interested in getting the e-book version. So I’ve done that, and you can use the coupon code HF74V, which is good through November 23. The link is: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82366 “