“My wife climbed staircases like a bull, but she descended them like a Duchamp painting, all blurred angles and motion.”
The narrator of Chicago author Jac Jemc’s debut novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books, $15.95), begins many sentences in the same manner: “My wife….” The novel reads less like a traditional story arc and more like an open diary, the various remembrances of the narrator accumulating into a portrait of his wife, now absent, and a portrayal of his own grief-fractured mind. “My wife took group photographs with skill.” “My wife hated mall jewelry stores more than most anything.” “My wife was the start of me.”
Jemc, 28, says she started writing a more traditional story, but after working on a poem that repeated the phrase “My wife…” the poem eventually took over the prose.
“I realized I liked what was unfolding with the poem a lot more than I liked what was happening with the novel, so I just started writing a ton of sentences and little stories that started with ‘My wife,’ ” she says. “There’s still a ton of them in the book, but I probably deleted 75 percent of them, if you can believe it. And then the simple sentences and sentence structures that repeat arose from a similar impulse, I think, like the husband only wants to share truths, and the easiest way to do that is to keep all of the facts contained in really simple sentences.”
Neither the narrator nor his wife is ever named, though that only seems to add to the intimacy of the story. The narrator is, simply, attempting to recall everything he can about his wife and speak the truth plainly. But what makes the story so compelling is the tension in the narrator’s own retelling. Every simile contains an untruth, an idealizing, and every statement reveals some attempt to understand the truth, rather than record it.
Recording, it turns out, is central to My Only Wife. The narrator’s wife works as a waitress, but her avocation is recording the stories of strangers. She would talk to strangers, and then go home and record their stories onto tape, storing them in a closet under lock and key.
“I think the narrator doesn’t even recognize that he’s started doing what she did,” Jemc says. “I think he’s just paralyzed, and thinking about her is all he can do. The wife was sort of constantly filling herself up and then purging all of that, as if once she’d told a story, that was it. It was gone. The husband, on the other hand, is trying to figure something out, trying to connect dots, and it’s a lot messier. If he purges himself of her, he might be erased himself.”
For several years, Jemc has been a fixture in Chicago’s live reading scene. Her work has always been distinguished by a sort of cold beauty, a precision that opens up space in her stories, and My Only Wife reads as the finest expression of that aesthetic. She began work on the novel as an undergrad at Illinois Wesleyan in 2005, so she would have a book to work on as she earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at the School of the Art Institute. The book was accepted for publication by Dzanc in 2009, and it’s been a long wait until now.
“I’ve been feeling excited now for the past few months,” she says. “I had some trouble for a while with how strange it felt to be trying to edit something on its own terms, because it’s not a book I could write now if I tried.”
My Only Wife is out now.