Thursday 8 September 2011

'Like a houseplant forgotten on a windowsill'

The Tiny Wife
by Andrew Kaufman

Kaufman's first book, the novella All My Friends Are Superheroes, was championed by Scott Pack amongst others and it is Pack's The Friday Project imprint that now brings his latest to these shores (although it was originally published last year by Madras Press). I never read that first book but I got a good idea of it from the basic synopsis. Tom is married to The Perfectionist but has been rendered invisible to her after the evil intervention of her ex-boyfriend Hypno. He has the length of a plane journey to make her see him again and for us to meet all of his other superhero friends and enemies ('None of them have secret identities. Very few of them wear costumes). The distance that can open up between a couple lies at the heart of his latest novella too and even though there was something just a little too cute about the synopsis for both of them I decided to take the plunge with this one as it sounded exactly like the kind of shorter fiction that I think I will hate and end up actually rather fond of.

The set up again is simple enough. An armed robber holds up a bank but instead of stealing money he takes a single item from each person inside, the one that holds the most sentimental value to them. He cuts a curious figure (as one of Tony Percival's many lovely illustrations shows) in his flamboyant purple hat and holds forth with a speech littered with metaphor and import.

Your soul is a living, breathing, organic thing. No different than your heart or your legs. And just as your heart keeps your blood oxygenated and your legs keep you moving around, your soul gives you the ability to do amazing, beautiful things. But it's a strange machine, constantly needing to be rejuvenated. Normally this happens simply by the doing of these things...When I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me. This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives. But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die.

And so the strange and bizarre consequences begin to manifest themselves. One woman sees her tattoo of a tiger become a real one and then spends the rest of the book being chasing around by it. Another finds God under her sofa when searching for the remote only to disappoint and lose him once again when her trip with him to the laundromat ends up with bearded and be-robed one covered from head to toe in little bits of tissue after his spin cycle. Another woman turns to candy, uses her own fingers as bribes to get the children dressed and in the car (and finds them 'unusually eager to kiss her goodbye' when she drops them at school) and when her husband returns home in need of food she pats the cushion beside her.

Her husband sat down. He kissed her candied lips. He kissed her arms and her neck and her face. They went upstairs. He kissed every part of her body. 'I could eat you up.' he said, and, lost in his passion, he did.

These little vignettes are sometimes funny, occasionally thought provoking but not much more than a distraction from the central story of Stacey Hinterland, the eponymous wife to our narrator. She realises that she has begun shrinking and is only able to convince her husband with the aid of a tape measure. The differences at first are very small and he notices for example that when sat on the end of the bed her feet don't touch the floor ('I couldn't remember if they ever had') but soon the shrinkage is obvious to the point where he can carry her in a pocket. She it turns out has worked out a pattern to the daily changes in her height and the acceleration means that once again our hero has a limited amount of time to rescue his relationship before she disappears for good.

It is only this element of the novella that really held the interest of this reader, however entertaining the whimsy of the rest of it might be. A significant appeal apparently of All My Friends Are Superheroes is that it makes a great love gift between those in the early days of a relationship. The Tiny Wife, produced as a beautiful little clothbound hardback, could well have a similar appeal to those a little further on; those who might have taken their significant other for granted, lost the easy ability to make them laugh, or found the terrain altered by the advent of children. That worry about cuteness isn't necessarily put to bed but Kaufman isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Our narrator actually speaks to the robber who has set everything in motion with one question of course at the forefront of his mind: Why? He may not get a satisfactory answer to that one but he certainly gets a clue about his own situation.

Perhaps one of the hardest things about having kids is realizing that you love them more than your wife. That it's possible to love someone more than you love your wife. What's even worse is that it's a love you don't have to work at. It's just there. It just sits there, indestructible, getting stronger and stronger. While the love for your wife, the one you do have to work at, and work so very hard at, gets nothing. Gets neglected, left to fend for itself. Like a houseplant forgotten on a windowsill.


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