When Absence is Presence: A Review of Jac Jemc's My Only Wife, by Jessica Treat
When Absence is Presence: A Review of Jac Jemc's My Only Wife
The wife in My Only Wife, Jac Jemc’s debut novel published in a beautiful edition by Dzanc Books, is never named. Nor is the husband who had been married to her for ten years and has been enduring her departure, conjuring her presence, for the last five. She is “my wife” or “she,” but mostly “my wife.” The repetition underscores both the need for possession (my) and the wife’s (anyone’s?) essential unknowability.
This is a novel without names: not of people, not of places. The couple lives in an apartment in an urban center, perhaps Chicago or maybe Boston (I’m guessing this from a single reference to the North Shore) or another imagined city. No relatives nor even friends of the married couple are introduced (a party is given but none of the guests becomes known or reappears in the novel). No children, in-laws or others intrude on this marriage. The husband and wife have jobs, but these are only occasionally referred to, never shown. This is a couple who live with, and for, one another.
But of course, it’s the husband’s story. He is our narrator, and we have only his account to go by. His wife does have her stories. A waitress by profession, she collects and records people’s stories on tape. This work, perhaps a stand-in for a writer’s or an artist’s work, is work she does alone and keeps locked in a closet. Away from the husband.
And now she is gone. In recounting these many moments in his marriage, his wife’s elusive and contradictory personality, the husband constructs a portrait for the reader. Like so many polished surfaces that come together, refracting light as they do, My Only Wife gains meaning, effect, through accretion of detail. One comes to feel the husband’s sense of loss, his grief, sharply, poignantly, by the novel’s end.
“My wife was, for the most part, uninterested in making the stories she collected more audience-friendly. She wanted the truth, not the entertainment,” states the husband (63). Jac Jemc, like her narrator’s wife, avoids seamless narration but rather gathers together a more jagged construct of crisp sentences and story shards. That the truth of this marriage, and the wife who left it, remains elusive by the novel’s end should not surprise us; this is a novel where stories are collected and stored, accumulating power and presence in their storage closet, but are never broken open, never fully revealed.
Jessica Treat is the author of three collections of short fiction: A Robber in the House (Coffee House Pr, 1993), Not a Chance (FC2, 2000), and Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters (BOA Ed, 2009). The recipient of a Connecticut Commission on the Arts Award, the Dominion Review Fiction Award, and artist residencies at the Valparaiso Foundation in Spain, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, she has had essays, prose poems, stories, and translations in numerous journals and anthologies, including Ms., Quarterly West, The Americas Review and American Literary Review.