The day I realized my wife was gone, our apartment was ransacked, torn apart...
The day I realized my wife was gone, everything else went with her.
And I tried to bring it back, but it never came, so I relented.
And now I've carried on.
In Jac Jemc's intriguing and thought-provoking debut novel My Only Wife (Dzanc, 2012), an abandoned husband attempts to reconstruct the events and details of his marriage to an enigmatic woman. That she will be impossible to fully know is made clear from the outset in the author's decision never to name her. Referred to only as "my wife," she is a puzzle in every way - a source of fascination and frustration to her husband and reader alike.
Some of her eccentricities charm us, and like the husband, we desire to know more: The wife prefers to be a waitress. She tears the pages from the books she loves and showers them on the street below. It breaks her heart that people want to be younger instead of older. She weeps over antique love letters. Most importantly, she collects stories: People are inexplicably drawn to her and eagerly confide their secrets. She records their tales, filling a closet with cassettes.
Yet for a character who is so interested in other people's stories, she is surprisingly self-centered and strikingly indifferent to the person to whom she ought to be most loving and compassionate. Time and time again, the husband (and thus the reader, too) is held at arm's length, rebuffed, chastised, accused of not understanding. He is locked out of the closet where she keeps her stories - her most important possessions - and thereby he is locked out of knowing her truest self. Everything is on her terms, and we read with interest as we catch glimpses of the husband's building resentment, for it parallels our own.
The wife is a challenging character and an interesting one, if not particularly easy to love. My Only Wife is a novel for readers who want to engage with, rather than be merely entertained by, characters, writing and ideas. Jemc has a distinctive style, using some non-traditional elements such as repetition in sentence openings and stand-alone sentences, that convey artistic confidence and that force the reader to pay attention to both what is said and how it is said. It struck me that the emphasis and occasional abruptness of these were very well suited to the wife's character.
At the risk of revealing too much [possible spoiler alert], my favorite part of the novel was ultimately considering the significance of the wife's disappearance. After struggling to form a coherent understanding of her throughout the book, this passage came as a lovely revelation:
"When I opened that closet door, and pressed "play" again and again for each and every tape that sat in that closet, I heard nothing. Every one of those stories she had taken the time to relay was gone....Like mug shots with no film in the camera, each person had been scrutinized from multiple angles, and then released into the night, untraceable."Were there ever really recordings on those tapes? It greatly appeals to me to think there were not. The wife has come and gone like a ghost: like the recordings in the passage, it is as if she was never really there. In the end we are left to contemplate the inscrutability of some personalities, the ephemeral nature of some relationships, and how much they mean in the long run. All we are sure of is that we never quite knew her, and maybe that is enough.
You can learn more about Jac Jemc and My Only Wife at the Dzanc Books website and in this interview at Used Furniture Review.
My thanks to the publisher for an advance review copy of My Only Wife.