May 27, 2013

"Thirteen Wives"

By Steven Millhauser
~5100 words

A man describes his thirteen wives.

The unnamed narrator begins by saying that he and his wives all live together "in a sprawling Queen Anne house with half a dozen gables, two round towers, and a wraparound porch, not far from the center of town." The wives get along well with each other, though their relationship to the narrator is "more complex." The rest of the story is devoted to detailed descriptions of each of the wives, one by one. The descriptions are a mix of the tender, the routine, and the odd, with the latter gradually coming to dominate. The fifth wife is always accompanied by a young man, "slender but well muscled, dressed always in a dark sports jacket," who even sleeps between them at night. The sixth wife flies back and forth across the ceiling, "laughing her tense, seductive laugh, brushing my hair with the tip of her foot." The eighth wife is untouchable, separated from the narrator by a sword in the bed. The ninth wife cannot see the narrator. The tenth wife is always ill. The thirteenth wife "exists only in the act of disappearing."

That last line is a not a bad summary of this entire piece. The descriptions are certainly unique, but because the wives are referred to only with numbers—never names—they begin to blur together. Perhaps that's the point, but the narrative voice scrupulously avoids offering any context in which to understand this "point," and the magical realist elements seem to come out of nowhere. The plot itself is nonexistent, for the actions described are habitual and never rooted in a specific moment. The language is above average, with a quaint, affected feel to it, but even exceptional language cannot make up for the lack of plot and character.

As a static narrative description, "Thirteen Wives" may have some merit. As a story, however, it's sorely lacking.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Satisfactory.

    A sweet but trite love letter from a man to his wife. Narrator is a bit self-satisfied in his realization that women are people, and people are complex and ever-changing.


    ...unless I'm missing something. Feel free to enlighten me.

    1. Good interpretation. But love letters are not stories, which is why it doesn't pass muster with me.