Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Tiny Wife


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

If you’ve read The Tiny Wife I imagine you’re scratching your head wondering why I would open my review to this delightful little book with a quote from Kafka because on the surface this is really the least Kafkaesque book I’ve read in a long time—it owes far more to the likes of Richard Brautigan or Tom Robbins (I was not surprised to hear Kaufman list In Watermelon Sugar as one of his guilty pleasures)—but as soon as I read the following I started to think a little differently about the book:

Chapter Fourteen

Eight days after the robbery, Grace Gainsfield, who had given the thief a small pressed flower that she used as a bookmark, had woken up in cold wet sheets and discovered that her husband had turned into a snowman. Getting out of bed, she stepped in a puddle on the floor. She looked back at her husband. His head was melting faster than the rest of his body; the left side of his face was lopsided, its mouth and eye sockets grotesquely elongated and droopy. The phone rang and, in shock, she answered it.
       “Did I call too early?” her mother-in-law asked.
       “No, no. I was up.”
       “Can I speak to Daniel?”
       “Um. He isn’t here.”
       “Where is he?”
       “At 6.30?”

What does Gregor’s family do when they learn he’s been transformed into a gigantic insect? What they don’t do is bat an eye. With characteristic Czechoslovakian stoicism they deal with it. When the chief clerk comes to see where Gregor is the family cover up for him:

"He's not well," said his mother to the visitor, while his father was still speaking through the door, "he's not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work.

You can see the similarities. In the real world, even in the Fringe or X-Files universes, anyone else would be in hysterics but this wife takes it in her stride, drags her husband down to the freezer in the basement and preserves him as best she can.

Kafkaesque situations are characterised by social alienation, the victimisation by anonymous bureaucratic institutions, the irrational terror of metaphysical powers, or the conflict between a weak son and an overbearing father figure, which lead to the individual's overwhelming sense of anxiety and hopelessness and are often expressed by rhetorical strategies like paradox irony, or sudden reversals in action. – Richard T Gray, The Franz Kafka Encyclopaedia, p. 156

metamorphosisNow that doesn’t really fit this book but there’s another literary term that gets associated with Kafka: magic realism. It can be argued that he invented the genre although that specific claim to fame tends to get overshadowed by those elements listed in the definition above. His story ‘The Metamorphosis’, however, does tick the most important box: a character breaks the rules of the natural world and people simply accept it. There is only one fantastic element in ‘The Metamorphosis’, the transformation of Gregor’s body—his mind stays intact— and yet the real metamorphosis is of his family, most notably his father, who changes both physically and mentally.

Was this still his father? Was this the same man who in old days used to lie wearily buried in bed when Gregor left on a business trip; who greeted him on his return in the evening sitting in his bathrobe in the armchair, who actually had difficulty getting to his feet but as a sign of joy lifted only his arms; and who on the rare occasions when the family went out for a walk on a few Sundays in June and on the major holidays, used to shuffle along with great effort between Gregor and his mother, who were slow walkers themselves, always a little more slowly than they, wrapped in his old overcoat, always carefully planting down his crutch-handled cane, and, when he wanted to say something nearly always stood still and assembled his escort around him. Now, however, he was holding himself very erect, dressed in a tight fitting blue uniform. – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, pp.27, 28

In The Tiny Wife there are thirteen instances of magic realism, many involving transformations, but I’ve got a bit ahead of myself. My apologies for beginning this review in media res. Let’s go back to the beginning and see what this is all about:

Chapter One

The robbery was not without consequences. The consequences were the point of the robbery. It was never about money. The thief didn’t even ask for any. That it happened in a bank was incidental. It could have just as easily happened in a train station or a high school or the Musee d’Orsay. It has in the past and it will in the future, and shortly after 3 p.m. on Wednesday 21st February it happened inside Branch #117 of the British Bank of North America.
       The bank was located at the corner of Christie and Dupont in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There were thirteen people inside when the thief entered: two tellers, the assistant manager, and ten customers waiting in line. The thief wore a flamboyant purple hat and brandished a handgun. Having a flair for drama, he fired a single shot into the ceiling.

The thief is not there to rob the bank. Money is of no interest to him. Instead he wants something personal from each of the thirteen people. He makes them form an orderly queue—he has a British accent and we do love our queues—and then lets them know what he wants:

I demand only one thing from each of you and it is this: the item currently in your possession which holds the most sentimental value.

So, David Bishop, the first person in the queue, hands over “a cheap-looking wristwatch … ‘My mother gave it to me – years ago, when I left for university. I’ve just gotten it fixed and started wearing it again;’ the next in line, Jenna Jacob, parts with “two wrinkled photographs” of her children; next again, the narrator’s wife (the narrator was not, however, in the bank himself), gives the thief a calculator and so the man works his way through the small group:

Daniel James gave him his wife’s parents’ wedding photo, which he’d been taking to get restored. Jennifer Layone gave him a dog-eared copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Sam Livingstone, the assistant manager, who’d stood last in line, handed over the paystub from his recent promotion.

All thirteen items in his possession the thief prepares to make his escape but before he does he turns and addresses his victims:

       “It has come to my attention that the vast majority of you, if you even believe you have a soul, believe it sits inside you like a brick of gold.
       “But I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Your soul is a living, breathing, organic thing. No different than your heart or your legs. And just like 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, like a car battery recharging by driving.”
       The thief stopped, put his arm into his sleeve, and sneezed. “Excuse me,” he said. He looked at his watch. “I’m really using a lot of metaphors today. Listen, I’m in a bit of a rush, so let me conclude. 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.”

TheStranger_BookCover3Shortly thereafter each of the thirteen finds out just exactly what “strange and bizarre” thing is going to happen to them or, as in the case of Grace Gainsfield, a loved one. Bearing in mind the book is called The Tiny Wife it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the narrator’s wife begins to shrink. Theirs is the only story we witness in any detail. All the others’ stories take over the course of a few paragraphs—like Sandra Morrison who becomes convinced that her heart is a bomb that will go off in ten minutes or Jennifer Layone (she’s the one who handed over the copy of The Stranger) who finds God under her couch—and a whole (short) chapter like Grace Gainsfield or Timothy Blaker, who’d stood seventh in line and who’d handed the thief an engagement ring; he gets his heart ripped out of his chest by his ex-girlfriend but doesn’t die (you can see why people reference fairy tales when they talk about this book) but don’t worry, he gets it back.

Some of the customers’ stories have been published separately. You can read two of them online

The blurb for the book says in part:

Stacey Hinterland discovers that she’s shrinking, a little every day, and there is seemingly nothing that she or her husband can do to reverse the process. Can Stacey and the other victims find a solution before it is too late? The Tiny Wife is a weird and wonderful modern fable. Small, but perfectly formed, it will charm, delight and unnerve in equal measure.

Okay, so is this a kind of And Then There Were None situation? Well, yes, in a way it is; not everyone dies but one by one they are eliminated. The group arrange to meet in the basement of St Matthew’s United Church but even their first meeting is not fully attended. Needless to say Stacey is there at the bitter end. By this time she’s calculated (remember she handed over the calculator) she has one day left before she vanishes completely. Will an answer come in time? Now, that would be telling.

Looking back on the story there are more quintessentially Kafkaesque elements there (albeit this would be Kafka-ultralite): Stacey feels increasingly alienated as time goes on although the thief is far from gone—he makes a habit of calling up his victims for wee chats. Instead of Stacey though he gets her husband:

       “Who do you think you are?” I started. “You fucking, goddamn – ”
       “Hey, hey, hey,” he interrupted. His voice was calm and reassuring. “Listen, maybe you should just, you know, listen, for once. Your wife tells me you’re not so good at that.”
       “What are you talking about?”
       “Calm down. Relax. I’ll quit baiting you. Ask me anything you want and I’ll answer.”
       I did not feel like talking to this thief, and I certainly didn’t feel like seeking his wisdom, but what choice did I have?
       “Why did you do this?” I asked.
       “Because it had to be done.”

Incredible-shrinking-manSo he plays the role of the faceless bureaucrat who doesn’t really answer anything (shades of The Trial there). Hopelessness is something most of the group have to face up to but especially Stacey who has more time than the rest to contemplate her fate. Her solution is: business as usual and her husband and kid buy into this. Now maybe in Kafka’s day they would’ve been happy to hide their dirty little secret away in their house but when Scott Carey, the protagonist in The Incredible Shrinking Man, begins to shrink the first thing he does is head off to the doctor who reassures him that he’s in perfect health and that "people just don't get shorter." When George Walterby who had stood twelfth in line and gave the thief his daughter’s pacifier learns that his baby’s started to shit money they still go to the doctor so what’s wrong with Stacey’s husband? I found his simple acceptance of things, although in keeping with the basic tenets of magic realism, unrealistic. What does he think’s going to happen? That’s my opinion. This Amazon reviewer disagrees:

This reminded me of the children's book Flat Stanley. In this, the wife is shrinking and there isn't panic and hysterics and tears but rather resignation and continuing as normal with an added obstacle to daily life. In Flat Stanley, Stanley's flatness is an inconvenience rather than a cause for wonder and panic as you would expect. I love this style, it is very fairy-tale esque, with a hidden message at the centre which you just have to dig a little to discover. – Anna Clare

Actually Dawn is the one to bring things to a halt—she’s been chased by a lion for several days (a tattoo that comes to life)—and appears a few times throughout the book trailed by her lion but we never find out any answers. Yes, you can have a solution without an answer. That’s okay in a fifties science fiction film—the thing gets killed and we never know for sure what it’s aims were although any fool can see it was there to obliterate all humankind—but I felt a bit cheated at the end of The Tiny Wife. I’m not the only one. Here’s what a few reviewers had to say:

I did feel that there was something, something I personally sought, missing - I don't know what, but for as much as I loved this, it holds me back from really loving it. – Shannon, 4 stars

It would have gotten five stars had the ending not been so abrupt, and maybe over time I'll learn to appreciate that more, that the ending was perfect, but I guess I didn't want it to end. – Craig, 4 stars

Had the end been elaborate and had the end explained anything about why the robbery occurred in the first place, it would have been one TERRIFIC helluva story. However, because it was abrupt and gave me the feel that perhaps the author was bored with the concept himself, I docked off two stars. – Shriya, 3 stars

Part modern fairy tale, part magical realism, I enjoyed this little fable and lost myself in the quirky tales of how the different characters were affected by the robbery. It is immensely imaginative and thoroughly charming. However as I came to the end I had a niggling feeling that something of the moral of the story had passed me by. Marie, 4 stars

I guess I wasn’t the only one to miss the hidden message. Still at only 88 pages I could easily sit down and read it again and probably will.

Looking at the seven basic plots it’s hard to say where this one lies. I’d probably go with Rebirth—where our protagonists are supposed to realise the error of their ways before it's too late—because that’s really the challenge the thief sets for them although, obviously, not all succeed. If the book has a moral it’s that you probably shouldn’t take life for granted but without any real backstory for these characters it’s hard to know if they truly deserve what happens to them, unlike, for example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike are really horrible brats. Dahl’s name crops up a few times in reviews and I can see why but, like Brautigan and Kafka, the only person Kaufman’s really like is himself.

The term ‘flawed masterpiece’ gets tossed around a bit too often, as does the expression ‘cult hit’ but this is the kind of book where both probably apply. If you are going to buy a copy—and despite my reservations I think you should—do try and find a copy of the hardback. It’s quite lovely. I can’t see the Kindle edition having the artwork and it is a nice addition. This is the second book by Kaufman I’ve read—I really loved All My Friends are Superheroes—and I will be reading this guy again. He says The Waterproof Bible is his best book. We’ll see. Let me leave you with the book trailer:


Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man Andrew Kaufmanturned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida.


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

What a fascinating review about an intriguing book.

Jim Murdoch said...

I thought so too, Elizabeth. In fact I’ve just got myself a copy of The Waterproof Bible which I hope to get to in the next few weeks. Thanks for leaving a comment.

Ping services