Magnificence A Novel - By Lydia Millet


It was a stricken love, but still love. It was the kind of love that gazed up at you from the bare white flood of your headlights—a wide-eyed love with the meekness of grass-eaters. Soft fur, pink tongue, and if you got too close a whiff of mulch on the breath. This was the love she cherished for her husband.

The love had other moments. Of course it did. But its everyday form was vegetarian.

She suspected it was the love of most wives for their husbands, after some time had passed. Not for the newlyweds—that was the nature of the condition—but for the seasoned, the ones who had seniority. When she thought of conjugal love she saw a field of husbands stretched out in front of her—a broad, wide field. Possibly a rice paddy. They were bent over, hoeing. Did you hoe rice? Well, whatever. The way she saw them, the husbands had a Chinese thing going on. They toiled like billions of peasants.

Technically, historically, and at this very moment in most of the world it was the wives who toiled. The wives toiled for their livelihoods, for the husbands and the little children. Sure; those were the facts. It was the wives, historically and factually—in that limited historical, factual sense—that were the beasts of burden. Even in the richer places, it was the women who shortened their life expectancy by marrying, whereas the husbands lived longer than their freewheeling bachelor counterparts.

Still, there was something about the essence of husbands that made them seem like sturdy toilers. Husband, housebound. It might be the wives who were bound to the houses, materially speaking, but the husbands were bound to them. This was because of the narrow focus of most men, how they tended to have few intimates, in emotional terms. They left the social bonding to the wives, so they were bound to them.

And she was ready to tell him all the details, if that was what he wanted. She was prepared to come clean. But a toiler could so easily be hurt. A toiler was chronically exhausted from his long days of labor. What labor, you might ask? The labor of being a man, of course. It was hard to be a man. The men were all insane, basically, due to testosterone. You could see it in them, roiling under the surface. The few exceptions proved the rule, and the smart men were big enough to admit it. For instance, steroids made you more of a man, chemically, and also—not a coincidence—made you insane. She’d read that autism was thought by scientists to be an exaggerated form of maleness. So there was that. The latent madness and retardation of men was compounded by the fact that most of them didn’t get to kill their own prey anymore, stalk living things and slay them in a savage bloodletting.

The men, even when they didn’t know it, were frustrated by this. They were unfit to live in civilized society.

Of course, women were also subject to hormonal madness—famously so. The estrogen or whatever, so-called premenstrual syndrome: the chemicals that, in excess, made them into caricatures of women. Hysteria, for instance, as Freud had called it. Neurosis. That time of the month. Of course Freud had been largely discredited. He had been a philosopher more than a scientist and Americans did not trust philosophers. Far from it. Also he did cocaine.

Still: no question, the fairer sex was more changeable than the unfair one. In practice this meant that the women’s madness sometimes receded. But with the men it was constant. When it came to insanity, women were indecisive while men never let up. Oddly the chronic insanity of men was often referred to as stability; the men, being permanent sociopaths, got credit for consistency. Whereas the women, being mere part-time neurotics, were typecast as flighty. Essentially, the female bouts of sanity were used as weapons against them. Sociopaths v. neurotics. It was a nontrivial distinction since many men took the thing a bit too far, frankly, becoming serial killers, wife beaters, dirty cops, or boy soldiers in roving gangs; war criminals, tyrants, and demagogues.

Not so much the women.

In one sense, though, she didn’t blame the men. That would be blaming the victim. They were hobbled by their repressed rage and Asperger syndrome, variations on which were lavishly spread throughout the male population, but so what? Far from blaming them she had always loved them, loved them for their sad flaws. The men were tragic heroes. To be