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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Thirteen Wives" by Steven Millhauser

Each week I review the short fiction in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It hurts me more than it hurts you...

Issue: May 27, 2013

Story: "Thirteen Wives"

Author: Steven Millhauser

Plot: There is no plot, per se. This is not a story so much as an ode; a stylized tribute to and exploration of one man's relationship with his 13 different "wives." He gives a brief introduction, and then talks about each wife in 13 different numbered sections of the story.

Review: I'm an ardent supporter of all forms of experimentation in fiction. We're  irradiated by electronic media from all sides, all the time; therefore the plain old "words on the page" need any advantage they can get. Which is just to say: this listicle type story works for me.

The title of the story would lead one to believe this is simply a story about a polygamist. Millhauser quickly (and thankfully) dashes those expectations, opening by telling the reader that he lives in a house with 13 rooms. Immediately, there are clues that this is not going to be a "realistic" story; there is going to be some fantasy, some magical realism at work. In fact, in this brief introduction, Millhauser provides the key to unlocking the story's real meaning with the sentence: "Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather a man with a single marriage composed of thirteen wives."

It's easy to read right past something like that; however, the careful reader of short fiction must always keep their eyes open for such things. Such clues usually pop-up early in these kinds of stylized stories. What is he really saying there? In my opinion, he's telling the reader -- quite plainly -- that his 13 wives are not real, individual people, but rather that the 13 wives are the different sides of his wife's personality and represent the different ways he has experienced marriage through the variations in her personality.

Each "wife" is unique in her own way. Wife number one is his absolute soul-mate and equal in every way; when he is angry, she is angry. When he is happy, she is happy. They finish each other's sentences; they satisfy each other's needs by satisfying their own needs. Theirs is a truly symbiotic relationship, and it's boring.

Wife number three is so exasperatingly high maintenance that she's almost invigorating. When the heat is turned off, she's cold. When the man turns the heat on, she's too hot. Nothing is ever satisfactory; even satisfaction itself is disappointing. To be married to someone like her would drive a man to suicide. Thank god he has 12 others...

Wife number 12 is especially interesting. He writes that she "is the sum of all that did not happen between us. In a crowded room on a summer night at a party overlooking a lake, I did not cross over and sit down beside her." This is fascinating because it taps into a very deeply-seated tendency to measure ones life against fantasy; a tendency which is totally illogical and an utterly, uniquely human addiction. Over time our fantasies take on a life of their own, almost. All the things that we dreamed for ourselves, that we planned but never got around to, all the things we believe "could have been" tend to pile up and become a body. And, in a sense, we feel a certain attachment to that body. Even though it is purely fictional, t is a part of us all the same, and we mourn it when it begins to die. This, to me, is the most interesting "wife."

Wife 13 bears recapping as well. Wife 13 seems to represent author's overall subconscious concept of "woman" as a mysterious, alluring, and yet unattainable ideal, something to be sought after but never attained. He writes that he's "never seen [his] thirteenth wife." She is the woman who passes by on the sidewalk, giving him just a brief glance. She is the woman sitting with her back turned to him in the coffee  shop; all he can see his her lustrous auburn hair. "To see her is to experience all the women barely noticed in public parks and crowded bus terminals," he writes. She is at once always just out of reach; and at the same time oddly familiar. He must assemble her from stolen glances: the flick of a lock of hair, the flexing of a calf, the sheen of her tights, the batting of an eyelash.

Wife 13 reminds me of a great Neitzsche quote about man and his conception of woman, but it could easily apply to women's concepts of men. He said [loosely paraphrased] that we all have one concept of woman in our minds. This concept was formed early in life, from our mother's. And that we are measuring every woman we ever meet against this ideal. Not necessarily against our mothers, but against the ideal of woman we formed at the early age. No matter the woman, we are always secretly measuring her against this ideal and therefore she will always fall short. However, it is what keeps us eternally fascinated by them, or, ideally one of them.

I find this story is truly complex and touching exploration of the depths of emotion a person can experience in a marriage. Though some of the wives are severe, difficult, and just plain unpleasant, they are all necessary in some way, as they balance each other out and provide something the partner needs. The man loves his wife even when she's being a demanding, impossible bitch, because, quite frankly, he'd go nuts if everything were perfect all the time! He needs her to deny him what he wants sometimes, so that he knows he wants it. He also needs her, in a metaphysical sense, to simply stand-in and occupy his subconscious role of "woman"; to be the representation of his lifelong feelings of lust, admiration, curiosity, hatred, awe, fear, and tenderness for all that is a "woman" in his mind, all his life.

Millhauser has used a fairly rudimentary technique of a "list" to create what is essentially a stylized character study of the narrator and his relationship to his actual wife. I don't suspect this story will "work" for everyone. Some of the portraits of the wives were squirm-inducing and I can see how some people might not get what he's trying to do. However, for those who are willing to pause and dig a little deeper, this story actually provides a road-map for how to love and how to find a world of fulfillment in one's partner. Aside from that, it also happens to be a finely-wrought fully-developed story.


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