Title: A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day Novel
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 “
So, is it a straw man novel? How deeply does it handle the intellectual issues and are they in illustration or in justification?
I read a lot, both as a part of my job and for pleasure.
Sounds like an explanation autobiography, done as a novel with trappings of other things.
Though I see how the author became souless:
That PhD program sounded very interesting.
BTW, her next novel also sounds like it has more of a mainstream shot at success.
Anyway, was an interesting review.
Maybe I should write a novel about the ex-Nazarene minister atheist who I and a catholic girl brought back to Christ during a philosophy of India upper division class.
Or maybe, neti, neti.
Some neat stuff, though. She went from seeing the value of her existence as only from the perspective of others (be it a man or a god) to having a separate value, so that her loss of faith was actually a part of her self actualization of where she should have been in the first place.
Speaking of the author, not the character.
I’m afraid it’s totally cheesy for me to get on here and defend my own novel. But I think you’d find that this is almost the exact opposite of a straw man novel. When I took my first philosophy class at BYU with Jim Faulconer, one of the first concepts he introduced was the principle of charity, namely, the principal that your argument will be strongest if you first represent your opponent’s argument in the strongest light possible. From a philosophical standpoint, the novel does this with faith, trying to represent faith in the strongest light possible before the protagonist ultimately chooses to give her faith in Mormon doctrines. However, the book ends up making such a strong case for faith as a concept that the protagonist never abandons it even when she abandons religious belief. For that reason, I think it has things to say to religious believers …
This is one reason in particular why I’d like to see some people perhaps from Faith-Promoting Rumor, etc., read the novel. To be frank, I think that initially, protagonist Marguerite is not able to provide the best possible defenses of religion and faith that are out there, but I do not think this is because Therese is creating a strawman novel. Rather, I think this is because when Marguerite first has these challenges, she hasn’t thought critically about anything raised. And so, she’s trying to counter-argue even though she doesn’t really know the issues at hand.
But as I said, even though the titular argument occurs before the novel’s halfway point, it alone doesn’t seem to have much of an impact until it unfolds.
So, I think Marguerite gets a lot better over time (as she actually starts studying philosophy). I would not consider it a straw man novel.
There are a few things I would mention further.
1) There are Mormon issues raised up, but for the most part, it seems like Doucet was trying to write a more broadly accessible novel. So, for example, most of the philosophical discussions could apply to religion or faith in general (well, as long as those people are able to take them in Mormon phrasings…is the idea that there must be opposition in all things too exclusive of a Mormon concept?). (Other characters don’t bring up Book of Mormon historicity issues, for example. To the extent that anything like this is raised, it’s in extreme passing. It’s not the emphasis here. Or it’s about Marguerite’s internal conflict with the church culture and her self-esteem.)
2) Even though I do suspect the novel is very close to Therese’s life, it doesn’t read like an “explanation” novel. Or at least, what would it be “explaining”? What would the intellectual arguments be “justifying”? If you think the novel says, “This explains why Therese pursued a philosophy PhD,” then I think you’re ok. Maybe that’s not correct, but I think if one thinks this is autobiographical, then this goes to expain that much.
But if you think this novel says, “This explains why Therese became an exmormon atheist,” then I think that misses the mark. I want to reiterate that except for the Amazon summary which seems to find it ok to reveal that she falls away from religious belief (so I’ll reveal that too), if you went into this novel completely fresh, you wouldn’t know even 85% of the way where Marguerite would “end up.”
I think there are definitely people within the church who could say that they are extremely similar to Marguerite in their paths, in the doubts they had when they were younger, and in their attempts to resolve those doubts through study, and they probably ended up in a quite similar place to her, but they still consider themselves Mormon, religious, and faithful. That is, they would make the same arguments as Marguerite up to the end of the novel, but would say, “And I’m still Mormon.” That’s why I think it would be interesting for certain parties to read.
For example, if you think the author “became soulless,” (even in jest), then I think that misses the mark. I think, whatever the case, there’s no doubt that Marguerite (qua author avatar or not) became more over the novel…more of a thinker, more of a reader, more of a person.
Interesting analysis of the book. But what I really want to know is is it worth reading? Is it well-written? Of all the millions of books out in the world that I could read why would you recommend that I pick this one to read?
Wow, this sounds really interesting. I’d like to give it a read sometime.
Answers to your questions: yes and yes to the first and second.
The third question is interesting…I’ll answer it, but I’ll also say this: reading one book does not preclude or exclude you from being able to enjoy other books.
That being said, why I would recommend that you read this book is because I think it illustrates and captures a particular idea of faith that can be appreciated by both religious and nonreligious folks. It’s a case for faith that doesn’t necessarily rely upon the content or strength of one’s religious beliefs: that is, even if you’re doubting and questioning, or do not believe at all, you can have a profound faith (and this is irrespective of whether you stay or leave the church). But even if you believe, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have faith.
It’s more in a person’s thoughtfulness about and toward their actions. I think to a certain extent this is an intuitive idea, but a lot of people might not readily recognize that in the act of questioning, researching, etc., people are expressing faith.
It sounds like this is a Mormon novel in the same way A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man is a Catholic novel.
Still it may be an interesting read for some; I’m sure Therese (and her character) are not the first who have gone on this journey (just as Joyce was not the first not to enter the priesthood despite his mother’s wishes).
You can read sample chapters from the book at http://www.goodreads.com/reader/13931-a-lost-argument?return_to=%2Fbook%2Fshow%2F12619465-a-lost-argument – 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
I was joking about the soul comment — in the context of leaving ABD to become a government beurocrat — the same way I might have if she went to law school.
Next, I was curious about the other points as they are genres of their own.
On the other hand, from the author’s other writing I am sincere when I comment that much of what she appears to be writing about is finding value in herself as herself rather than value as a reflection of a man or a god which is a valuable insight.
I am glad she came by to comment and appreciate her taking the time to respond to the questions. Sorry I felt the need to ask them, but in the romance novel genre that is a valid series of questions to ask about a book.
So, no one thought your visit was cheesy — I think we all gained from your visit. Thanks!
Thanks Stephen! It’s nice that you all have been open to discussing the book here on Wheat and Tares. I appreciate it. Funnily enough, writing a novel about a person leaving the Church ended up being kind of a nice bridge to reconnect me to some of my cultural Mormon roots.
And Paul: Yes, a Mormon Stephen Dedalus is more or less what I was going for (although thankfully my book doesn’t have swathes of untranslated Latin in it like James Joyce’s does …)
A thought that always runs through my head is that every act of reading is at the same time an act of not-reading. So reading one book is not reading every other book. With lists of 50-60 books that I need to read this choice of what to read always weighs heavily on my mind.
Your review makes it sound interesting. It sounds a bit existential to me, in that it encourages people to think about their actions, and that there is a faith in everything.
Therese, I first read Portrait of the Artist when my young adult son gave it to me. It was about the time he was separating from the church about ten years ago. When I later asked him if he’d given it to me for that reason, he said, “Huh? No. I haven’t read it. I just figured you’d like James Joyce.”
I did actually enjoy the book a great deal.
I can understand what you mean when you say that if you choose to read one thing, then you are not able to read anything at that time. However, you can have a reading list or reading queue. Most people live long enough that they shouldn’t have a problem running out of time to get through that queue, if they are really dedicated.
The novel is very existential. I eat that all up, too.
Yes, there are definitely opportunity costs to spending your time reading one book vs. another, not to mention the opportunity cost of reading itself vs. blogging, studying, eating chocolate, etc.!
Sometimes I worry reading as a form of entertainment is slowly dying for that very reason – books have so much competition from movies, the internet, music, video games, text messaging, etc etc etc, that the opportunity cost of reading any book whatsoever has risen exponentially in the past few years, I think!
Its a novel about someone who becomes an ex-Mormon written by an ex-Mormon author. To say therefore “it’s not just “for” atheists or “for” ex-Mormons,” is disingenuous. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then its a duck- even if made from plastic.
Oh Andrew S
Don’t be so self-effacing, Andrew S, your review rocked. And this is fun stuff from Doucet:
“Maybe I’m strange and perverse, but I’ve always thought there was something sexy about a compelling argument.”
If you read the book and don’t find that it yields some insight for you on how to have faith, I will personally refund your money. Seriously. (At the risk of sounding like a used car salesman.)
I don’t and won’t buy it. The end.
I bought it just yesterday based on Andrew’s review here. So far it reminds me a lot of my own freshman experiences at BYU (feeling completely invisible for the first time in my life), although I was a pretty determined atheist before attending BYU. Just when I was thinking “Well, Marguerite just wants to have sex with this guy,” the protagonist admits just that to herself. So it feels like a coming of age novel with some personal honesty. My own path had some intersection with Marguerite’s. (This next part’s for you Andrew).
And I’m a Mormon.
Jettboy: Oh well – all those scenes where the atheists and doubting Mormons sit around cannibalistically eating babies might have been a bit much for you, anyway …
OK, finished it. The novel reminds me of a Mormon Siddhartha or something similar, but much more readable. Jake, you should definitely read it since you’re a philosopher. That’s a no brainer.
Here’s a great quote toward the end: “I want to see the world without explaining away its mystery by calling things wicked, righteous, sinful, and good. I want to erase in myself the easy explanations, the always mendacious explanations about why things happen the way they do, and in this way, come to know the mystery of being–not by any approximation in thought, but by being. I want to be and not be ashamed of being.” Loved that bit.
Even more than the glimpses into the personal that I could identify with (and there were many that I could not as I am much more cold-blooded Vulcan than Therese’s heroine), I liked her premise on the history of faith.
Thanks so much for reading it and reporting back! I’ve long had a soft spot for Hesse, so I love that you compared it to a Mormon Siddhartha! I love, too, that you describe yourself as cold-blooded Vulcan. Ah to be that …