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Musings on Novel About My Wife

May 27, 2011

I finally finished reading Novel About My Wife, by Emily Perkins. It took me a while longer to finish than I thought, as I could tell it would be a book I wouldn’t want to end. And I was right.

Tom is a 40-ish screenwriter, struggling for work, and dealing with the death of his wife, Ann. This book is a recollection of his, actually typed out by him, as he looks back on his recent past with Ann, in order to try and understand her better, and why she died. It is also, as he reluctantly mentions at a couple of points throughout the narrative, a way for him to try and bring her back to life, to have her presence beside him again, as he tries to “build her again using words”.

The majority of the story takes place when Ann is pregnant, and as her and Tom try to get through life in their ordinary house in an ordinary street. Things start to go wrong when Ann admits she thinks she is being stalked by a strange homeless man, a man who Tom never quite manages to see. Danger starts to surface in various subtle ways, as Tom recollects all these instances, and with the benefit of hindsight, tries to put the pieces together.

I loved it. I found the writing style, which was quite rambling and often jumped around in a more structured train-of-consciousness way compelling, and the lack of chapter breaks meant I never had the convenient excuse to put it down. The author’s ability to write as a man was incredibly convincing, managing to capture all the thoughts, pride and insecurity that a man might have, to a level I wouldn’t have expected a woman to do. Tom is deeply in love with his wife, to the point that his obsession with her prevents him from focusing on the reality of her, as he bathes in her fantasy. We, as readers of what he is writing, are able to spot this, and his own marginal recognition of it sometimes surfaces, along with his irritation at himself for not knowing what he should, as evidenced by his admissions that “some facts are known”.

A quick search on the internet has shown me that many people are upset with the ending. Many people want to know, just what happened? In the end, we are not given any straight-up answers, but are rather left with quite an open-ended conclusion. This has irritated people, but I quite like it. The point of the novel is that this is Tom trying to understand what happened himself, and yet at the end, he has nothing but guesses himself. He doesn’t know the answers, and this frustration haunts him as he writes this account. This frustration carries over to the reader, and leaves us with an unsettling feeling which I think is quite powerful.

However, there are clues within the account, which allow us to piece together a theory. And here’s mine – if you haven’t read the book, reading further will probably spoil a lot of the fun, so I’d stop now.

Ann was sexually abused as a 14-year old. The typewritten passages indicate that her brothers and their friend have set this up, and she goes along with it, in the hope that the boy she knows as “Horse” actually likes her. However, he doesn’t, and that whole experience ends, though not before she gets some kind of scar on her leg, possibly from drugging, which stays with her for the rest of her life.

Presumably, she later becomes a prostitute. Much reference is made to her hardened, defensive personality, and Hallie later says that he knows her, saying, “You were a… and now you’re married to Tom Stone!”, to which she replies, “Please, don’t tell Tom”.

She moves to England, and tries to remove all her ties to her past. She changes her voice, her accent, and never talks of her past. Then, she and Tom get married in Fiji. But Hallie is there, an old friend of her brother. He may or may not have been the guy whose real name she never knew, who abused her back when she was 14. But either way, he knows about her and her reputation, which is what Simon hears in LA, and tells Kate, who then reports it to Tom. Simon calls him a drunk and a power freak, saying horrible things, which Tom later admits, he doesn’t think were made up.

When Hallie meets Ann in Fiji, everyone is drunk, Tom is off being entertained by the locals, leaving Hallie to hit on Ann. Maybe he was the guy from that time, she doesn’t know, she’s shut off that part of her mind. But he does seem to recognize the scar on her leg, calling it a “botch job”. He then forces himself onto her, after which she returns to her place, upset, in a daze, first trying to enter rooms which are not hers. She gets back, washes out her mouth, cuts open her scar, and locks herself up, crying. When Tom finally manages to get back to her, she is in a withdrawn state with scabs around her mouth, and insists that they leave Fiji and Hallie.

Everything is forgotten, until Hallie turns up one day at the hospital where Ann works for his skin cancer removal, and she sees him. Maybe he tries to talk to her, but the result is that she needs to leave. She invents the story about the homeless man, leaves work early, and is in the crash.

Seeing Hallie, the trauma of the crash, and the hormones of pregnancy start to work on her, and when she starts being asked about the Man, she imagines him into reality, as a manifestation of her fears, who encroaches closer and closer into her personal life as money issues get more desperate and the pregnancy gets closer. She also starts to sense other things, such as the ants and the smells in the kitchen. She even begins to hear the voice of the man, verbalizing it herself in nonsensical speech.

When she returns home one day, and overhears Tom talking to Hallie on the phone, she loses it, collapses and this is really the tipping point for her. She cuts her leg again. When, a few days later, she gets a phone call from Hallie’s office for Tom, all denial is erased as she realizes with certainty that Hallie has well and truly come back into her home. By the time Tom gets home, Ann has cut off all her hair, and put a chair under the door to the room she thinks the Man is in. She is now totally unhinged, and when Tom confronts her with Hallie’s name, she drifts off unnoticed, and drops herself out their bedroom window, the one window which was not barred shut.

The typewritten pieces are interesting. I thought that they were Tom’s attempt at writing the Fiji script, or at viewing things from her point of view (they are titled NAMW, and may have been another way to try to understand her), but there seem to be things in there which Tom could not have known. The very last line is the line of random letters and symbols Ann has written by punching the keyboard in her final hours before her suicide. Did she write the whole thing? I’m not sure anymore. But I’m interested to see what other people think?

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