Steven Millhauser: “Thirteen Wives” from TNY, 5/27/13

TNY Art by Balint Zsako

TNY Art by Balint Zsako

My wives get along very well with one another, though their relation to me is more complex. People sometimes ask, “Why thirteen wives?” “Oh,” I always say, putting on my brightest smile, “you can’t have too much of a good thing!” In truth, the answer is less simple than that, though the precise nature of the answer remains elusive even to me.

Hello again, Steven. You’ve thrown another curve ball, haven’t you? I have to admit, I loved reading this, and found it very accurate, if by that I might mean that all of us are many different people at once and fulfill different roles, and the best kind of spouse is one who shifts gears at just the right moment. Who knows when to comfort, when to help, when to challenge or scold or just… disappear. It’s a great deal more interesting than that old-hat list of multiples so many consider to be included in “wife”: friend, lover, helpmeet – or, worse, the awful one that lists her by her uses: housekeeper, nurse, teacher, chef, accountant.

But you don’t write that sort of thing, the sort of thing I can read along with and nod and say, “Yes, me too, I know exactly what he means” to myself. You write things that make me scratch my head and read again and again – I had to print out and cut into pieces “A Voice in the Night” (that’s not a complaint; I loved the adventure). You write things that make me work for it (again, that’s not a complaint).

So what am I missing?

Is there some progression here as you list your wives? Forgive me for being reductionist – I know you don’t write mere lists – but since the story is available online it would be ridiculous for me to include thirteen individual quotes, one for each wife, and I certainly wouldn’t want to leave any out. So here is my bare-bones version of your wives:

Balanced partner, Comforter, Contrarian, Perfection, which, as you’ve discovered, is in itself an imperfection, Cheater (in thought, deed, or just possibility), Rejector, Double, Impossible Promise,
Secret-sharer, Needy invalid, Fixer, Opportunity Missed, Gone.

And I see something interesting. Maybe it’s not one woman at the same time. Maybe it’s in chronological order, with a few detours. We all start out with our ideas about marriage, the “You do the cooking and I’ll clean up” intentions, the “I’ll never wear a flannel nightgown” vows (silly fools who don’t appreciate the slow reveal, not to mention the softness of cotton and the comfort of warm fabric), have a first fight, make up for it, cheat (some of us skip this step, you know, it is possible), come together and grow apart as we age… is this a story? A story of a wife who made him (it is published as fiction) promise to turn off the machines when the diagnosis came through, kept it secret until the signs began to show, was beautiful in her neediness, made it easy for him, leaving onlu regrets of what they didn’t experience, and a memory in her wake, a figure that can’t quite be glimpsed?

Or am I overreading again, and it’s just a list? I don’t know, Steven, and I’m not sure it has to be any one thing. Maybe, like the thirteen wives, a story can be many things at once, rotating to show different faces depending on where we are when we read it.

My thirteenth wife is abundant and invisible; she exists only in the act of disappearing. This perpetual annihilation is her highest virtue, for by ceasing to exist she increases her being; by refusing to be a particular woman, she becomes a multitude. Though I am denied my thirteenth wife, who is always other, denial is her generosity, and I’m grateful to her for more lasting gifts: the gift of memory, the gift of desire, the gift of astonishment

In the end I have no idea what you’re doing here [Addendum: I just got an idea – you have no actual flesh-and-blood wives – these are imaginary wives you bring out in your imagination when you need them…], but, unlike when I didn’t know what you were doing in “Phantoms,” I love the ride. So thank you.

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