Mormon Studies in Unexpected Places, Volume IV: The Infinite Future

By February 13, 2019

This is the fourth installment in an ongoing but terribly irregular series dedicated to the appearance of Mormon Studies in popular media, including musical lyrics, popular television shows, movies, and so forth. Previous installments can be read here, here, and here.

Okay, the appearance of Mormon Studies isn’t entirely unexpected in a novel written by a Latter-day Saint author who graduated from BYU and whose books deal with explicitly Mormon themes and revolve around LDS characters. Indeed, it was the mention of “an excommunicated Mormon historian in Salt Lake City” among the characters featured in the description of Tim Wirkus’s 2018 novel, The Infinite Future, that sparked my interest enough to read a book about the search for the obscure Brazilian author of a mysterious science fiction book (that may or may not possess mystical powers).

Still, it’s not every day that a novel features Mormon Studies as an important subplot. Here’s a fuller description of the book from the publisher:

An exhilarating, original novel, set in Brazil, Idaho, and outer space, about an obsessive librarian, a down-at-heel author, and a disgraced historian who go on the hunt for a mystical, life-changing book–and find it.

The Infinite Future is a mindbending novel that melds two page-turning tales in one. In the first, we meet three broken people, joined by an obsession with a forgotten Brazilian science-fiction author named Salgado-MacKenzie. There’s Danny, a writer who’s been scammed by a shady literary award committee; Sergio, journalist turned sub-librarian in São Paulo; and Harriet, an excommunicated Mormon historian in Salt Lake City, who years ago corresponded with the reclusive Brazilian writer. The motley trio sets off to discover his identity, and whether his fabled masterpiece–never published–actually exists. Did his inquiries into the true nature of the universe yield something so enormous that his mind was blown for good?

In the second half, Wirkus gives us the lost masterpiece itself–the actual text of The Infinite Future, Salgado-MacKenzie’s wonderfully weird magnum opus. The two stories merge in surprising and profound ways. Part science-fiction, part academic satire, and part book-lover’s quest, this wholly original novel captures the heady way that stories inform and mirror our lives.

It takes nine chapters and nearly 100 pages before we’re introduced to “Dr. V. Harriet Kimball — a short, scrappy woman with the look of a distance runner, somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years old.” Dr. Kimball introduces herself to her fellow Salgado-MacKenzie aficionados thusly: “I study Mormon history and do some cultural criticism as well. That’s why I’m in town — a conference at Claremont on millenarianism in the twentieth-century Church. I presented a paper on the ways in which mid-century Mormon preparedness rhetoric positions food storage as a metaphorical bridge between temporal and spiritual salvation” (89-90).

In time, we learn that years before, Harriet had been excommunicated from the LDS Church for research that her ecclesiastical superiors deemed inappropriate. “This would have been early 1991,” she explains, and “I’d recently been appointed chair of the Mormon studies program at Deseret State University, my biography of Eliza R. Snow, A Variegated Life: Eliza R. Snow and the Birth of Mormonism, had just come out and was getting some nice review from the right kinds of journals.” But then an invitation to speak about the book “at a local Church fireside” was abruptly rescinded at the behest of her stake president, who expressed concern about “my book’s ‘unconventional portrayal of the Prophet Joseph Smith,’ … such a portrayal being inappropriate for dissemination among the general Church membership” (142). But the ERS biography ends up only being the tip of the iceberg: She attended “Mormon women’s right rallies,” published “a series of frank, factual articles for Sunstone,” and assumed an active role in “the Mormon Defense Association, a non-Church-sanctioned group formed to identify and resist abuses of power within Mormonism” (143-44).

While the characters and details here are fictionalized, they reveal a familiarity with the subfield of Mormon Studies. Claremont Graduate University, of course, is home to one of the first actual Mormon Studies chairs (est. 2008). The rise of the New Mormon History and the attempts of some scholars to more forthrightly discuss the Latter-day Saint past in the early 1990s (in Sunstone and more scholarly journals alike) did lead to tensions with some church leaders. And the Mormon Defense Association seems like an obvious nod to Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Mormon Alliance.

This blending of fact and fiction is furthered just a few pages later by a discussion of real life excommunications around the same time:

“The process [of Dr. Kimball’s excommunication] was sped along when, in the fall of 1993, six prominent Mormon intellectuals were formally disciplined by their local leaders — one of them disfellowshipped and the other five excommunicated.” After detailing the nature of their controversial scholarship (“ranging from feminist critiques of church hierarchy to heterodox interpretations of the Book of Isaiah, to detailed examinations of sticky moments in Mormon history”), Dr. Kimball explains to her non-Mormon friend Sergio that “the September Six, as the Salt Lake Tribune dubbed them, became the focal point of heated debates within Mormonism” (145-46).

Actual events from the world of Mormon Studies make an additional appearance in the book’s closing pages, in a section devoted to catching readers up on each character’s activities since their search for Eduard Salgado-MacKenzie. We learn that Harriet Kimball has kept herself busy as a public commentator on all things Mormon during a period “especially newsworthy for Mormonism” (including the Book of Mormon musical, Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, and “the excommunication of a prominent women’s rights activist”). In one piece in the New Yorker “on mid-twentieth century Mormon historians” (ha!), Kimball notes “the backlash against Juanita Brooks for The Mountain Meadows Massacre” (379).

What separates The Infinite Future‘s discussion of Mormon Studies from other entries in this series is its commentary on the politics of Mormon Studies. The consequences of Harriet Kimball’s excommunication affected not only her spiritual standing, but her professional career, too. Dr. Kimball lost her job “as chair of the Mormon studies program at DSU.” Although the fictional Deseret State University [1] “is a state school,” Harriet astutely explains that “Mormon studies programs get their funding primarily from wealthy Mormons, and since wealthy Mormons tend to be conservative on all fronts, my continued presence on the faculty would jeopardize the program’s continued funding” (149).

But I’m also fascinated by the way in which Wirkus’s novel collapses several decades of Mormon Studies. A “chair of Mormon studies” in 1991? In the world of The Infinite Future, DSU beat its in-state counterpart Utah State to the punch by 15 years! I wonder if this collapsing means anything for the commentary on the funding model for Mormon Studies chairs and any potential conflicts between donors and researchers in those positions — are the politics of Mormon Studies today really as controversial as the early 1990s? [2]

_________________________________

[1] Why hasn’t Dixie State changed its controversial name to this instead??

[2] One final nod to real life practitioners of Mormon Studies is included in a note on sources at the end of the book, where Wirkus lists several books that “proved essential” to his research. Those books include Greg Prince’s biography of David O. McKay, Levi Peterson’s biography of Juanita Brooks, Brook’s own The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel’s book on freedom and authority at BYU, Linda King Newell and Valee Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelright’s edited compilation of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, and our own Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Politics Public History


  1. Fascinating, Christopher.

    Surely the Eliza bio and fireside is fictionalizing Newell and Avery’s experience with Mormon Enigma. Right?

    Comment by JJohnson — February 13, 2019 @ 11:51 am

  2. Good catch, Janiece. Yes, that seems likely to me.

    Comment by Christopher — February 13, 2019 @ 1:55 pm

  3. That is quite the paper topic. I would actually like to read that.

    This is such an interesting thing to weave into a book, given how niche Mormon Studies is!

    Comment by Saskia — February 14, 2019 @ 11:27 am

  4. Great stuff, Christopher!

    Comment by Jeff T — February 14, 2019 @ 6:21 pm


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