There is a sense of chaos involved in the act of falling in love, a lack of control, and quite possibly a hint of something tragic, a chance to be hurt. This applies to the slim but haunting novel My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) by Jac Jemc. In marriage there is the possibility of intimacy, a merging of spirit and life, but the reality can be a dense caryatid carved out of lies, mysteries, and selfish acts.
My Only Wife is about an unnamed couple, a husband who has fallen and surrendered, and a deceptive, passionate and quirky wife. The way Jemc renders their story is painful in its depiction of beauty and love, vicious in its evocation of what a broken heart feels like—the eternal echo of a call left unanswered.
I don’t usually point out epigraphs, but the two that open up this novel are so perfectly selected that I need to mention them up front. The first is from Emily Dickinson:
“That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.”
And the second is from Leonard Cohen:
“Is this what you wanted? To live in a house that was haunted by the ghost of you and me?”
The wife is an enigma, defying expectations—inclusive and dependent one minute, reclusive and absent the next—and the Cohen lines, especially, touch on the idea of a cruel mistress (or master) who would ask a lover to stay in a place where there is only the ghost of what used to be.
The wife is a waitress, and though she keeps her thoughts and interpretations private, she has a unique ability to listen, to pull hidden narratives from her customers as if laying her hands on them to rid their souls of demons, and she shares their personal matters with her husband.
In the beginning of the novel, this behavior is eccentric at worst, just her way of connecting to the world, of being intimate, of embracing one of her many gifts. Over time, it becomes a weapon, a means of separating the couple.
The husband is in love with this woman, he adores her. His mantra, “My wife,” echoes through the novel. How many times over the course of the novel does he utter this phrase? I counted—almost five hundred:
“My wife climbed staircases like a bull, but she descended them like a Duchamp.”
“My wife walked out of theaters when she was bored, offended, tired, felt like moving.
I sat through every movie I ever bought a ticket to, even if they were insufferable. I waited to see how a story turned out, if it redeemed itself.”
“My wife was a constellation without a mythology to inform her shapes.”
And so it goes. The husband worships the wife from afar, this distance she has put between them, allowing himself to be manipulated, grateful for what he has, always the optimist, happy to bask in her beauty, her uniqueness, her gifts.
Paired with her allure and the stories she shares with her husband are random hints of her mania, her depression. It’s been said that genius borders on insanity. It doesn’t take much to set the wife off, always churning, always full of passion and angst that is quick to bubble to the surface, to boil over:
“My wife was conceding, letting the drama go, when she moved a bottle of bleach from the kitchen table. Beneath the bottle, on her good red tablecloth, was a wet spot faded to pink. My wife pitched the bottle into the basket. My wife shouted, ‘Why can you never not ruin something?’
‘You ruin everything. You are never not ruining something.’”
The reader is taken aback and, much like her husband, always searching for a logical reason for her outburst, for an apology, a way to make her happy. A simple mistake doesn’t warrant such vitriol. Relationships are give-and-take, we build our partners up—we don’t break them down. But with a deft hand Jemc weaves a pattern of contented life with that of misery and frustration. One day the couple is in love, holding hands and walking in the rain, and the next day they’re coming to the realization that they don’t know each other at all. It is a powerful potion that is brewed and simmered over time, building toward something, an end we know is coming, has been telegraphed already—but the mystery of how the darkness will descend still awaits us.
Another example. Late in the novel, the wife finds a love letter that the husband wrote to her a long time ago. The expected response would be one of nostalgia, of romance and appreciation. But she erases the letter instead. Why? She erases the letter because she can. The impermanence of the letter has offended her—why write it in pencil so that it can be rubbed blurry, so that it can fade over time, why make a gesture that is so fleeting? Love is eternal. And like so many times throughout this tense and beautiful novel, we nod our heads in agreement with her, the romantic in us all seeing her point, while at the same time inhaling with shock at the brutality of the act, her deletion, and the crass way in which she confesses her sin.
Towards the end of the book, after we bear witness to a powerful act of supernatural artistry (that, or simply her calculated and brutal cruelty) the husband writes his wife a letter, a love letter, even after all that has happened, in order to summon up his feelings and breathe again. Some of those thoughts, here, will shed a bit of light on his emotions:
“I miss you. I’ve found bruises under my skin, now, weeks after you’ve gone missing, that stagnate and wait for you to heal them to a clean clarity of flesh… I am furious and I still love you.”
To print any more of this letter would be unfair to future readers as it is one of the many deathblows that resonate throughout the final pages of this novel.
In My Only Wife, Jac Jemc takes the noir and beauty and eternity of what we think is love and creates an entirely new narrative. As much as the husband in this story is the victim, powerless to resist or refuse, so are we. Captivated by the flawed goddess that is his wife, we are lured in by her siren song and dashed across the rocks. Maybe we will learn—or maybe we never had a chance.