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Wifeshopping

Steven Wingate



"
Every couple nights since I went to Thermopolis I stay up late and try to count all the lies I told Tracy. "
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Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

Wifeshopping is a remarkably focused collection. Each story is about a relationship between a man and a woman, and each story exposes that relationship’s faultlines. Almost all are narrated by the men, who have such similar voices from one story to the next, they are practically the same man. He is often blue collar, he is not well educated but is intelligent and has a recording eye for life’s quotidian details; he is stoical, matter-of-fact and perceptive; he monitors his own moods and is restless under his own skin. 

Restlessness sometimes comes because he wants more, even if it is not entirely clear to him what “more” actually consists of. In Me and Paul the narrator meets a woman at a hot spring and starts telling her lies, inventing a successful version of himself, a version he envies. Elsewhere, restlessness needs to be diagnosed by someone else. In Bill the narrator’s fiancée is irritated by his shopping for secondhand clothes, seeing it as him wanting to become a different person. By the end of the story we suspect she’s right. In Faster the narrator, Nick, lives under his older brother’s weighty disapproval. This causes him to break off his engagement, and despite the story ending on Nick’s determined optimism, the reader sees a man restless as ever, running (literally) to stand still. 

The other theme of Faster, that of someone being pushed into something he doesn’t want to be, comes up again in Beaching It, one of the collection’s eeriest stories. An itinerant metal worker spends his summers travelling through seaside towns, selling candelabras to tourists. Young and good-looking, he becomes the regular affair of a rich man’s 40-year-old wife. In its way it’s an ideal arrangement, and yet he gradually finds himself unsatisfied as the unthinking sex-on-the-beach stud she’s turned him into. The story suggests we can be haunted by ghosts from our longed for, unreachable futures, as well as our past. 

Often these characters have only half-understood desires, and one result of this is that their lives can turn on a single knife-edged moment. In The Balkan House a guy waits in a cheap motel for his girlfriend’s divorce to become final. Trapped in limbo, his circumstances will change forever because of an act he can’t even explain to himself. In Meeting Grace a similar thing happens when the narrator introduces his wild sister to his Indian fiancée. However, this story is less successful, due to his fiancée’s lack of a personality. With her characterisation restricted to a bindi spot on her forehead and her blessing their food by singing over it in an un-named Indian language, she seems less an actual woman and more like something chipped off the wall of a temple. However, this is a rare misstep for a writer whose female characters are usually as convincing as the males. And in fact, some of these stories are less about the narrator than about the woman he is involved with – in the Carveresque Three A.M. Ambulance Driver the story is more about the ambulance driver in question, and about all the hard-won experience which lies behind her. She has the same steady sense of the men in the book, but is, you feel, without their internal conflicts. Those conflicts are summarised perfectly by Philip Larkin in The Life With a Hole in it

Life is an immobile, locked 

Three-handed struggle between

Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)

The unbeatable slow machine 

That brings you what you’ll get. 

That most English of poets would have understood these American characters and would, perhaps, have admired their refusal to concede to the slow machine just yet. Instead, the inhabitants of Wifeshopping push on, mostly unbeaten, mostly unbowed, still wanting to do the right thing, still confounded by their unfathomable hearts.

Read one of the stories from this collection (PDF version) on StevenWingate.com.

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review and Zahir, among others, and has a story forthcoming in GUD.

Mithran's other Short Reviews: "Best American Mystery Stories 2007"

James Burr "Ugly Stories for Beautiful People"

 

PublisherHoughton Mifflin Company

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction

Author bio: Steven Wingate’s stories have received awards from Gulf Coast and the Journal and been nominated for the Pushcart prize. He teaches writing at the University of Colorado at Bolder and lives in Lafayette, Colorado.

Read an interview with Steven Wingate


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