Books

In “The Mere Wife,” Beowulf Goes to the ‘Burbs

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On Tuesday, July 10, a group of literati and party people traded the crowded subway cars of the NYC MTA for Railway NYC, an equally packed nineteenth-century train–styled Greenwich Village bar simulating a ride around the base of smoke-covered mountains.

We were there to celebrate the launch of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a modern retelling of Beowulf, and everyone seemed a little nervous. The invitations promised “a world of monsters and fire.” No one was sure what that meant. “I literally have no idea what’s going on,” one attendee said when I asked him what he was expecting. Another hoped to avoid an interactive “Sleep No More situation.” He was mostly there for the spiced pineapple cocktails.

In The Mere Wife, out this week, Herot Hall has been transformed from a medieval Danish castle into a quaint American suburb, surrounded by primordial mountains hiding a trove of secrets. Dahvana Headley, known for her fantasy novels like Queen of Kings and Magnonia, as well as her co-editing work on Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures anthology, flexes her wit and classical knowledge while turning the entire story on its head, especially when it comes to the epic’s three main antagonists. Two lovelorn boys have replaced Grendel, the fearsome giant; Grendel’s mother, the “mere wife” of the novel, becomes a reclusive army veteran suffering from PTSD; and the dragon is now a renovated train furthering gentrification. The lake under the mountains, referred to as “the mere” in the novel, seems to take on a life of its own. In this reimagining, the world is wild enough to be familiar, but the monsters are not who we think they are. It was fitting that we were gathered to celebrate in the belly of the beast, or a reasonable facsimile of it.

The book launch was the work of Farrar Straus & Giroux’s newest imprint, MCD, which aims to “interrogate established publishing practices and experiment with new storytelling formats,” according to Naomi Huffman, programmer for the night’s event. This is only the second launch MCD has hosted. The first, for Katherine Faw’s gritty feminist novel Ultraluminous, featured galactic manicures, tarot readings, and a panel on beauty and power. The point, Huffman says, is to reinvigorate the typical reading, which can seem hyper-exclusive and academic. “They’re devoid of storytelling,” she explains. “There’s little that’s surprising or engaging about them. MCD’s series intends to produce events that are as engaging as the experience of reading the book.”

Dahvana Headley, 41, was holding court in the back of the room, sporting a chainmail dress and over-the-knee boots that had a print faintly reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript. I asked her about the tattoo traveling down the right side of her arm in bold, Gothic print that reads aglæca.

“This word is the reason I wrote the book,” she said. “It’s a word that describes Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf, and Grendel. For Beowulf it’s often translated as ‘hero.’ For Grendel’s mother, it’s ‘monster’ or ‘hag.’… What it really means is awe-inspiring, formidable.”

Dahvana Headley is no stranger to fantasy. She studied dramatic writing at NYU and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and World Fantasy Award. She is also working on a translation of Beowulf, due out next year from FSG, which she says happened “wildly and accidentally” as she was working on The Mere Wife. In her translation, Grendel’s mother will be a human woman, as opposed to the “monstrous hell-bride” of Seamus Heaney’s translation.

To Dahvana Headley, Beowulf is a foundational text for understanding our world today. “Our political story-telling is totally based on it,” she explained. “The way that Trump talks about himself is based on that hero speech. I’m interested in pointing out the ways that that propaganda works, and the ways that equality isn’t served by that hero/monster binary.” Hence, the decision to refocus the typically masculine story on two women: Grendel’s mother and King Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow — Willa Herot in the story.

With the author’s friends and admirers edging around us, I headed back to the front of the bar, where Emily Kempf (a/k/a Magic Tatty) was setting up to tattoo flash on willing partygoers. A young woman stopped my friend and me. “The reading’s about to start,” she warned, “and it’s, like, ten minutes long; you’ll miss it.” Soon after, Dahvana Headley grabbed the mic and the musician and artist Dorian Wood started to bang out a chaotic version of “Chopsticks” on the keyboard in front of him. Dahvana Headley read the part of Willa Herot with a dry sense of humor. As Willa prepares for a Christmas feast, Dahvana Headley is coy: “It’s two days ’til goose, though that may have been a mistake. She’s never done a goose before, but who has?” The crowd titters appreciatively, and Wood closes his eyes to nod along with her rhythm.

Just as onlookers started to get restless, a voice boomed from the back of the room, reading the part of Grendel’s mother. It was the woman who warned the reading would be starting soon: I later learned she was actor and director Kirya Traber, whose Undesirable Elements was previously reviewed in the Voice. Attention shifted, and then again and again, as a dizzying array of voices around the room were added to the chorus of narrators. Some were friends of Dahvana Headley’s, while others, like Traber, were professional actors. It was more performance than straight reading, and finished slightly over the promised ten minutes.

Everyone seemed to have something to say about what they had just witnessed. “Did we walk into Haiti three years after the hurricane?” one attendee asked, glibly signaling, I imagine, some level of confusion. Forgivable, perhaps, since The Mere Wife specializes in a sort of boundary-crossing consciousness: Characters slip in and out of fugue states, the lake narrates for short sections, and an army of suburban mothers speaks as a collective, often in riddles, much as in Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. It lends itself to confusion, but made for a lively reading.

“I love an author who understands the performance,” Traber told me after the reading. “I don’t think they have to be the same thing, but when there’s room to meander between a play, film, and writing, that’s exciting.”

It also seemed to draw a more diverse crowd than a traditional reading. That night I met two directors, several musicians, one magician, and one kid two weeks new to New York. And while some “got” the reading more than others, Huffman said she hopes she can engage with the average reader: “I want more of everyone else in the room.” That night, at least, was a start.

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