Steven Millhauser – Thirteen Wives

I sent this to my Kindle some time ago and forgot about it, but this morning, I accidentally tapped the icon.  Since I had just written about Millhauser’s Eisenheim the Illusionist, I decided to see what this one was about.

It starts out simply enough with a narrator saying, “I have 13 wives.”  OK, simple in sentence structure, but not so much in implications.  Anyone who has read Millhauser knows this is not going to be a story about Mormons.   You know to expect a detailed description of life with each, and to not expect much of an arc to the characters or story.  And that is fine — nobody expects show-tunes out of Dylan.

He continues on to very briefly describe their collective living and dining arrangements in a one-paragraph introduction.  There are a few sentences that leave the story open to interpretation.

Even though I married my wives one after the other, over a period of nine years, I never did so with the thought that I was replacing one wife with a better one, or abolishing my former wives by starting over. Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives.

Millhauser then begins a numbered list.  I don’t remember him ever doing that even though his style certainly lends itself to that format.

Rather than recap the 13 essays of his wives — and there is no wrap-up following #13 — I will just say that each wife is lovingly and fully rendered; much more than some deserve.  But this is not a schmaltzy, romantic ode to Big Love or the individual women.  There are eccentricities and quirks to be found, preternatural empathy, and some defying of the laws of physics.  But the latter instances are grounded by being mixed in with more traditional relationships.

There seems to be a lot of speculation online as to whether he is describing one woman over a period of time, the multiple facets of one woman at one point in time, or actually 13 distinct wives as advertised.

There seems to be more evidence to support the 13 wives theory, but ultimately I don’t think it matters.  As usual, Millhauser puts his universe on the table and you can dig in or not.  There is enough to go around.

I rate this 11 wives.

At least as of today, it is available online here.

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