Short Story day 8 – Thirteen Wives

8. Thirteen Wives
Steven Millhauser

This is day eight of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Steven Millhauser is another contemporary, modern author that I have wanted to read. I have a couple (actual, real, paper) books of his short story collections very near the top of my to-read pile. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Martin Dressler. I was very happy to see that this story, Thirteen Wives, was available on the New Yorker website – and added it to my June reading (and blogging) list.

Over the decades, the New Yorker has been one of the best, if not the best, consistent source for quality short stories. My only complaints are that they keep going back to the same writers again and again (though these are of unquestioned skill and even genius) – plus there has developed such a thing as a “New Yorker Story” – I wish they would work a little harder on introducing more diversity in their fiction – but I’m picking nits here. Hat’s off to the The New Yorker and their support of the short story as an art form.

Unfortunately, now, for the first time, I have come across a short story this month that I didn’t like. Thirteen Wives isn’t really a story – it reads more like an essay on the various aspects and complex dimensions of a marriage. Sure, it’s dressed up in the first person and the narrator pretends that the thirteen wives are actually different women (though he does say, “Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives.”) – but the author’s intentions are clear.

And he doesn’t go far enough. It comes across as a paean to marriage… which is OK, I suppose… but he doesn’t push it enough to make it interesting. He doesn’t deal very well with the aspect of time…. A marriage that lasts several decades is something beyond this story’s parameters – he does say he married these thirteen wives over nine years. Nine years is nothing.

As I read each section, I’m afraid my reaction was, “OK, that’s well written, a witty turn of phrase… but so what? Is that all?”

But that’s just me. Looking around the ‘net – I see folks that thought the story was excellent and exactly what they were looking for. Read it yourself, tell me what you thing.

It’s the peculiar fate of my thirteenth wife to evoke innumerable pasts that aren’t hers; she is composed of my memories of other women. To see her is to experience all the women barely noticed in public parks and crowded bus terminals, the half-seen women sitting at wrought-iron tables under the awnings of outdoor restaurants or waiting in line at ice-cream stands at the edges of small towns on hot summer nights, all the women passing on suburban sidewalks through rippling spots of sun and shade, the briefly stared-at women rising past me on escalators with glossy black handrails in busy department stores, the silent women reaching up for books on the shelves of libraries or sitting alone on benches under skylights in malls, all the vanished girls in high-school hallways, the motionless women in wide-brimmed hats standing in gardens in oil paintings in forgotten museums, the black-and-white women in long skirts and high-necked blouses packing suitcases in lonely hotel rooms in old movies, all the shadowy women looking up at departure times in fading train stations or leaning back drowsily on dim trains rushing toward dissolving towns. My thirteenth wife is abundant and invisible; she exists only in the act of disappearing.
—-Thirteen Wives, by Steven Millhauser

2 responses to “Short Story day 8 – Thirteen Wives

  1. I’m really enjoying your 30 Days of Short Stories. Reading your comments for this one (there’s always something intriguing about Millhauser, but I’m usually left puzzled) gave me an idea – what if he doesn’t have any wives? No real ones, anyway – all these wives are imaginary, he evokes them when he needs them, then puts them away when he’s done. It’s kind of a perfect marriage. It’d be like him to write a story about thirteen wives that seems like it’s about one (my original thought, though I thought it might be a consecutive thing, especially with the last wife conveying absence) but turns out to be about none?

    Anyway, keep it up, I’m hoping you’ll go for 30 days more.

    • Thanks, I’m glad somebody is getting something out of it. I’ve enjoyed doing the reading, research (such as it is), and writing more than I expected – but my readership is way down (though it is creeping up).

      An interesting idea about the Millhauser story. I think the best way to approach it is to give up thinking about what’s “real” and take it for what it says on its own. Of course, it then has no meaning unless it’s related to real life in some way.

      My personal opinion is that the thirteenth wife is made up of the women in the husband’s imagination – all the wives he didn’t marry, in some ways. I like your idea that it seems a “perfect marriage” – and that might be a key to my disappointment… there’s nothing interesting about a perfect marriage.

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