Katie Chase: Man & Wife (A Strange Object, 2016)
The perfect cover design of Man & Wife should stop you in your tracks. A figure in a dress floats in white space — its head a ball of flames. Next, the title: Man & Wife conjures the drone of old traditional wedding vows, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health; to love, cherish, and to obey.” That title, the ampersand, the wife.
Katie Chase’s hypnotic environments and lush characters swept me into familiar but strange lands in Man & Wife. The women are strong, but forced to submit to traditions that force them to give something up, and the men exist — some moving along with life in a plodding, blundering way and some as ghosts that pull at the minds of the women, almost prop-like.
In the title story, “Man & Wife,” a girl just about to start fifth grade gets signed away to marry. This is the normal way in this world that like ours is filled with barbies, Jeopardy! and chilled rosé but still somehow unfamiliar. It’s a place where girls are given through contracts and monetary exchanges to husbands. The juxtaposition between the present and a future that resembles something of our past in “Man & Wife” reoccurs throughout Chase’s stories and keeps a binding energy throughout the entire collection.
As Chase deftly pulls the reader into her made-up places, she cuts with apt assessments of the relationship between man and wife. In the title story for example:
“Maliciously I wanted to call attention, in front of everyone, to the couscous still in his mustache. “Right there,” I’d interrupt, pointing to a spot above my own lip. This was something a wife could do, scold or embarrass her husband for his own good. But I knew I hadn’t earned it yet, and it would take years of waiting, quietly noting.”
Two other stories, “Refugees” and “Old Maid,” highlight a society’s aversion toward single people. In “Refugees,” a society has hit rock bottom, with resources running out and camps of people who cannot support themselves. The narrator describes her unmarried aunt, “All her life Aunt Patty had scrimped and saved, never investing in the market, never going on a trip, never putting in a lawn or pool — never giving her body up to a husband and making kids, as Momma always pointed out.”
And in “Old Maid,” an old flame of the narrator explains to her, “The rest he said to my ear: ‘The men want to fuck you, and the women want to be you, being fucked by their husbands.’”
I wanted the eight stories in Man & Wife to last longer than they could. I savored them as Chase cruelly, subtly, fantastically exposed the cracks within our system and the heartbreak of human feeling.
Man & Wife is the the fourth book released by independent, Austin-based publisher A Strange Object. It raises the bar for the already high expectations that A Strange Object has established and I can’t wait for their future titles. For more about the publisher, read our interview with the editors.