While reading “Your Second Wife,” the second-to-last story in Laura van den Berg’s I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, you might immediately think that it’s a criticism of society at large, another argument against late capitalism and its blatant excess thinly-veiled in fiction.
“We have stopped seeing each other as people, as fellow travelers on this dying earth; we just see a gig or an economy,” the narrator says. “The system is designed to keep us so depleted that we forget our sense of decency and become so mercenary about our own survival that we have nothing left to contribute to the common good.”
She says this while she is tied up in the trunk of a car, kidnapped by one of her clients, people who hire her for a day to dress up as their dead wives and absolve some of their grief. And the words she’s saying are true, sure; we are stripped to the bone by this disgusting capitalism that takes everything from us and gives us nothing. The gig economy allows us to quantify the opportunity cost of living so we choose to work instead.
But what van den Berg does in this story – and in the entire collection – is much smarter than rewording that same schtick about capitalism. The story is about relationships – the one between the narrator and her sister, between the narrator and the husband-clients, the husbands and their dead wives, the narrator and herself.
“Lizards,” a story that can read as an emblem of the #metoo era, is about a husband giving his wife drug-laced LaCroix against the backdrop of the Kavanaugh hearings. This story is one of the few set in third-person, so there’s no implicit protagonist. The husband and the wife are both nameless, which lends a sense of space to the readers. The story is meaningful because it doesn’t take a definitive moral stance on the #metoo movement. It’s not meant to describe the trauma that many women experience regularly, but to be a stirring addendum to someone’s own philosophy on the matter.
All of the stories in this book explore relationships in a strikingly unconventional way. It’s impossible to ignore van den Berg’s attention to the intricacies of sisterhood, in particular, and the way that she sets up these sister relationships. There are multiple examples of this book delving deep into a relationship between two sisters where one of the women is not present at the time of the story.
One sister is usually partnered while the other one, the protagonist, is single. The protagonist takes her missing sister’s place in more than one story. In one, two sisters never meet or know of each other’s existence, the oldest being stillborn years before the youngest is born. It’s a fascinating way to describe the uniquely poisonous kind of competition that can thrive and rot between two women who were born from the same womb.
Van den Berg’s detached writing might strike some as cold. There aren’t many overtly touching moments in any of the stories, and it seems like van den Berg keeps her characters at arms-length, perhaps overcautious against sentimentality. I don’t think she cares about her readers forming an opinion on her characters or the subject matter; she’s not a needy author. But the characters in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears are so odd, their desires so universal, that they endear to us anyway.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears has been described as an “urgent and unsettling collection of women on the verge.” It’s true that this book of short stories centers women, with nearly every story revolving around the lives of its female characters.The writing is beautiful and the stories are some of the most peculiar I’ve ever read.
But the collection isn’t “urgent and unsettling” so much as it is touched with grief and loneliness and weirdness, and even the shortest stories feel well-paced. This isn’t the kind of book that should be described as something that we, as a society, need at this time to poignantly sum up all the universal cultural oddities that we’re experiencing right now. It’s not here to try and heal our collective Trump-induced trauma. But spending time reading something this bizarre and captivating encourages you to see the world in a necessary, fascinating way, and a little healing might be a side effect.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
By Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 28, 2020