Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Go Bang Your Head on a Desk": Ideology in Nephi Anderson's Added Upon

Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, typically regarded as the first Mormon novel, outlines the Mormon doctrine of the plan of salvation onto a narrative about some people. The novel serves as a fascinating window into the lives of turn-of-the-century Mormons: how they interacted with the world around them, and how they valued and practiced the various doctrines of their religion. As a work of literature, though, Anderson’s novel commits a cardinal sin: that of being one of the most boring books out there, and of making its reader want to bang their head on their desk.
          Most of the literature that I value employs a pragmatic, “showing is better than telling” construct to its design. This is what makes literature not just words, but art: it elevates somebody else’s story into a vicarious experience for the reader. Added Upon, however, is driven by dogmatic, “tell, don’t show” methods of craft. This makes the book feel more like a really long pamphlet than a novel, and, again, will make you want to bang your head on your desk.
          How does Anderson pull off this magnificent effect, you ask? Here’s a few ways:
1.     Hollow character. This book has six main characters: Rupert, Signe, Henrik, Marie, Rachel, and the King of Poland (I'm serious), all of whom are essentially the same person. These are not people, but ghosts, who essentially think the same way, and who never have to make any concrete decisions. They were so boring, that when I got to the part about Chicago, I leapt with delight, because the city itself was the most interesting character so far. (It got about a paragraph of description before Anderson moved on to other stuff.)
Something you should go see instead of reading Added Upon
2.     Technical ideology. More than character, Anderson concerns his “book” with ideology: he wants to tell you all of the most famous Mormon doctrines, more than tell you about the people he’s created. I use the word technical in this bullet point because this ideological emphasis gives the book a scientific, explanatory spin to it. It’s a recipe, it’s an owner’s manual, it’s Yahoo Answers, it’s an infomercial—but it's not a novel.
3.     Forward design. Unlike a tightly plotted movie, in which the writer sees the end from the beginning, Anderson writes this book like a journal, never really sure about what’s coming next. This is why so few of the conflicts in the novel—Homan and Delsa’s suspended love, Rupert’s loss of his parents, Marie refusing Henrik’s proposal—ever land; they get barely any time to simmer, which prevents the reader from connecting with them. Anderson’s forward design gives the book no forward motion; it makes you want to put the book down, not race to the end.

I give it an iron medal! Hopefully you’ll never have to think about seeing this one in theaters.


  1. I totally agree. I feel like you tapped into one of the major stylistic issues with the novel: the book is a vehicle to portray an alternative motive, not just a good book. When explaining the book to my husband the first phrase that came to mind was also "tell, don't show," which really weakened this book's chance to have any reader connection or genuine expression.

  2. I, too, had a hard time enjoying this book. I tried (and sometimes failed) to cut Anderson a little slack for a couple reasons. 1: His purpose seems to be more to teach than to entertain, which he definitely succeeded at. 2: This is a pretty old book. We're used to a different style of writing these days. We also have pretty short attention spans.

  3. I also agree with your assessment of the book. The characters were flat and predictable because, as you said, they were basically all the same character. The basic premise of the book had potential for conflict, but, once again as you said, the conflict was never able to develop which in turn means the characters were never able to really grow and develop in a way the audience could connect to. The novel was essentially one story told over and over again using six different characters.

  4. As an aspiring novelist (I usually don't admit that to people...), I felt the same pains as you did. I love writing contemporary realistic fiction and connecting the feelings of a made-up character with what we feel in our everyday lives. You rightly, pointed out that the characterization is FLAT FLAT FLAT. If you read my post, my feelings were a little more merciful, but only because I made connections as a member of the church. I understood things and filled gaps of writing in with my own culture and knowledge. If I was completely foreign to the church, those redeeming qualities would have vanished