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The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, $27, hc
Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller, Melville House, 2018, $26.99, hc
Who remembers Beowulf? Not the eighth-century Old English poem that most of us read at some point in high school or college, but the brawny braying braggart whose exploits gave the epic its name: a hero of the ancient Geats (the people of Götaland, part of what is now Sweden) who sails to the court of the Danish ruler, Hrothgar, and, over the course of fifty years, rids the countryside kingdom of three monsters.
That's right, monsters! Who cares about some mighty-thewed guy with a sword when you have monsters? Contemporary versions of "Beowulf"—movies and graphic novels, John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel, which gave one of the poem's three devils his due by making him an adolescent monster and the book's narrator—have shifted attention from the poem's scholarly appeal to its more visceral elements, which surely were what the poem's author had in mind when s/he uttered its famous opening word, the Old English Hwaet.
As Maria Dahvana Headley points out in the beginning of her brilliant re-imagining of "Beowulf," The Mere Wife, Hweat can be translated as "Say, Listen, So, What, Hark, Tell, Behold, Ah, Lo, Yes, Sing, Now." When J.R.R. Tolkien proclaimed it during his classes in Old English, some students thought it meant "Quiet!" It was Tolkien who resurrected the ancient text, reclaiming it from scholars and critics who seemed unsure as to how to interpret it, in his groundbreaking 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics." As Tolkien noted, with an impressive degree of snark for a 1930s Oxford don, critics generally saw the poem in terms of what it was not—a historical or religious document. Instead, they variously found it, among other things, to be:
—a half-baked native epic…the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons—a string of pagan lays edited by monks; the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian—a wild folk-tale (general chorus)—a poem of an aristocratic and courtly tradition (same voices)—a hotchpotch—a sociological, anthropological, archaeological document—a mythical allegory (very old voices these and generally shouted down, but not so far out as some of the newer cries)—a clever allegory of contemporary politics—a national epic—a burden to English syllabuses; and (final universal chorus of all voices) it is worth studying.
These last two remain true to this day, depending on whose translation you read—there are many, including excellent ones by Tolkien, Seamus Heaney, and Dick Ringler, whose version I reviewed and recommended in the February 2008 issue of this magazine.
But back to the monsters. Three appear in "Beowulf"—Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a dragon. Unsurprisingly, given Smaug, it's the dragon that gets the most airtime in Tolkien's essay. Grendel receives due attention, mostly in the form of an analysis of his name and parentage that appear in an appendix and footnotes. Grendel's mother gets only a passing mention in the essay itself. Her only other appearance is in a parenthetical aside (part of her son's appendix, which almost seems like a bizarre meta-pun). Here is the pertinent passage in its entirety: "(Grendel's mother is naturally described, when separately treated in precisely similar terms [to Grendel]: she is wif, ides, aglaec wif; merewif, brimwylf, brundwyrgen—"
The parenthetical remarks about Grendel continue at some length.
My Old English dictionary translates wif as the Modern English wife; ides, a magical or noble woman; aglaec, a formidable warrior; brimwylf, a sea wolf. Brundwyrgen seems to be a portmanteau word formed from OE, wyrgen, to strangle, and the Old Norse bund, bull. Merewif is defined as a neuter noun, "a water witch woman living in a lake (Grendel's mother)."
So in all the world, there is only one merewife (I am discounting Popeye's Sea Hag). Tolkien really couldn't be bothered with her, and up until now, it seems, neither could anyone else.
Headley sets out to right this wrong in The Mere Wife, a retelling of "Beowulf" that plays out in a contemporary exurban setting, and is narrated almost wholly by women. Its main protagonist is Dana Hill, young veteran of an unnamed modern war, presumably in the Middle East, where she was captured by the enemy and seemingly executed. Her faked death is recorded and released to global media, Dana proclaiming "My name is Dana Mills. America, this is your doing," before a sword falls on her neck. So, a novel inspired by an ancient story in which a woman is murdered by a man in a retaliatory killing, opens with a scene in which a woman is murdered by a man in a military execution.
It's a bravura opening, and Headley doesn't let up on the action or horror: Immediately after the execution, Dana wakes up in a tent, somewhere in the desert. She doesn't know where she is or how she got there. She's about six months pregnant. She has no knowledge as to who the father is. A bomb goes off, so she walks until she finds herself among American soldiers who recognize her.
He gestures at my stomach. "Whose child is this?"
Back in the U.S., Dana is in a military prison—whether she's being held there or has been assigned duty is unclear. After six weeks, another soldier engineers her escape. She makes her way back to the remote mountain community founded by her family in the 1800s. There she gives birth to her child in a cave. She views him as monstrous—a breech birth, born with teeth and golden eyes—yet loves him unequivocally, dangerously. She names him Gren, and raises him in the buried ruins of a train station beside a lake, remnants of a long-ago plan to connect the mountain village to the distant city. (The descriptions of the mountain and surrounding area reminded me of Colorado, but the defunct rail line's terminus at Grand Central Station puts it within two hours of New York City.) She hunts and fishes for their food, supplementing wild animals with the occasional domestic cat that's lost its way. She sees no one but her son, and he knows no one but her, which may be for the best.
The damage that shows: One eye. There's a part of my hair coming in white instead of black. The damage that doesn't show? PTSD, amnesia. Brain, shaken by explosions. Sight, full of shadows.
Seven years pass. Dana Mills has not been seen since her escape and is presumed dead. The scene shifts to Herot Hall, a gated community that's swallowed up the rural town that was Dana Mill's ancestral home, the graves of Dana's family buried beneath the MacMansions replacing everything that once stood there. The Herot Hall belongs to Willa, unhappy trophy wife (are there happy trophy wives in literature?) of Roger Herot. Willa's first, brief marriage to a musician was ended by her mother, Diane, who had it annulled, and who also ended Willa's pregnancy by swiftly arranging an abortion. Willa's second marriage, to Roger, a successful plastic surgeon, results in a son: Dylan, known as Dilly, a sweet-natured, lonely child who has an imaginary friend who lives on the mountain.
From this point on, The Mere Wife shuttles between Dana's world and Willa's: the same world—the same mountain—but irrevocably split by the forces of economics and class, gentrification and race (it's implied that Gren is biracial). Dilly's friend isn't imaginary: He's Gren. The two boys manage to play and run off together, their secret friendship an affront to both Dana and those at Herot Hall when it's discovered. Gren and Dylan (note how the names form one name) become secret sharers, as do Willa and Dana, though the mothers only encounter each other when Dana breaks into Herot Hall in search of her missing son.
Grisly events transpire that mirror those in "Beowulf"—murders, a woman's severed arm, more murders, including one not in the source material—though here the epic's titular character isn't "the mightiest man on earth, high-born and powerful" [Heaney's translation], but a middle-aged police officer named Ben Woolf.
Ben's life "was a series of almosts, until he joined the Marines and went to war, where the almosts became certainties—his brain's full of the dead. He counts them like sheep." Called to Herot Hall to find Willa's missing son and whoever has killed her husband Roger, Ben ends up marrying Willa. Their lives together—all of the scenes set at Herot Hall, really—unfold like an episode of Big Little Lies recounted by a woman whose precise recitation of the minutiae of upper-middle class white female privilege are intermittently derailed by cocaine psychosis. Which, paradoxically, makes them seem only more real, and more frightening.
It's always the mothers who are hated. The fathers are far away, home at 5:30, off the train, perfume on their jackets. The mothers are the clay pigeons children want to shoot out of the sky. Imagine being a target for fifty years, from your moment of first nubility to moments of humility, when your skin feels like paper and you stop sleeping forever, unacknowledged as being the armed guard of civilization—We have Ph.D.s in pain. We've watched the video of Dana Mills's original death, and imagined ourselves on both sides of it.
It's a tribute to Maria Dahvana Headley's formidable gifts that her novel shows us so many sides of so many things: not just privilege and disenfranchisement, but wartime violence, motherhood, grief, the urge for vengeance, and, ultimately loss—of loved ones, of a sense of place, of self. "I want my life back, unbroken," Dana Mill reflects. "I want to start over, but that isn't a thing people can do. I breathe the chill of the wind and hear birds singing, all my selves together at once, soldier, daughter, wife, victim, mother, monster."
In other words, Wif, ides, aglaec wif; merewif, brimwylf, brundwyrgen. Grendel's mother. Only this time she gets an entire, beautifully written book to herself. I've never once felt my heart break when I've read "Beowulf" over the years, but I did when I finished The Mere Wife. Take that, Professor Tolkien.
Jason Heller is one of my favorite contemporary music writers. In myriad critical venues, including the Atlantic, New Yorker, Pitchfork, and NPR, he's covered figures like Nina Simone, Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart, Nick Cave, Mar Bolan, William Bell, Metx, and Poly Styrene. His wide-ranging taste and deep knowledge mean that his twitter feed functions as a sort of digital ordnance survey map for both music geeks and more casual readers and listeners—a second's glance just now showed a series of tweets on Unwound, the Cure, and Sly and the Family Stone. He's also author of the alternate history novel Taft 2012, and has written extensively about science fiction, including a noted piece on Iraqi sf.
Strange Stars, Heller's first full-length piece of music writing, is a survey of 1970s science fictional music in all its weird, proggy, glammy, funky, and sometimes just plain tacky glory. If you were there with Parliament or Ultravox or Tubeway Army or "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" on your stereo, this will bring it all back (for good or bad). If you weren't, Strange Stars will help you fake it: just find a lava lamp and a copy of Hawkwind's X in Search of Space (on the original vinyl, natch), and no one will ever know.
One obvious precedent for Heller's book is Rob Young's magisterial 2010 volume Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, which ranks with Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces and Jon Savage's England's Dreaming as one of the best books on twentieth century pop music. Like Heller, Young invokes the literature that influenced the music he discusses: for Electric Eden, much of it Victorian and Edwardian supernatural literature, and the work of the great twentieth century fantasists. Heller appears to have a narrower remit—music influenced by a single genre in a single decade, the 1970s, which here (as in some other cultural studies) begins somewhere around 1969 and doesn't end until about 1981. Young's book has the advantage of a much longer view: Its subject extends from eighteenth century English folk music to the present.
And British visionary music (encompassing folk music in its myriad manifestations, including mutant strains of psychedelia and rock and roll) is firmly rooted in British soil, a singular landscape that, varied as it is in terms of topography, urban and suburban sprawl, and ethnic diversity, still manages to act as a legendarium for the country's inhabitants. The fantasists got Stonehenge. The sci fi contingent got outer space, which, until the 1960s, no one had ever experienced first-hand.
Clearly, pop music had to make up for lost time.
And it did, as Heller's breakneck, sometimes breathless survey demonstrates. Starting with a twenty-one-year-old Bowie transfixed by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Strange Stars proceeds to show how science fiction infiltrated not just Bowie's creative DNA, but that of many (at times, it seems like most) popular musicians of the era. By now, Bowie's own space odyssey is well-known—from Major Tom to Black Star, the majestic, chilling album released just two days before Bowie's death from cancer in 2016—and has been chronicled in greater depth in Simon Reynold's 2016 Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy. But Heller does an admirable job of summing up Bowie's influences and output, especially in the artist's early sf period ("Give me pulsars unreal!").
Where Heller excels is in homing in on, then falling down, countless musical wormholes, from glam (Bowie, T. Rex, Queen) to prog (Pink Floyd, Rush, Amon Düül II, Hawkwind, Genesis, Yes, Can, Gong, Klaatu, et al, ad infinitum) to middle-of-the-road radio-friendly acts like Neil Young, Elton John, Jefferson Starship (neé Jefferson Airplane), and Styx, to the punk and post-punk of X-Ray Spex, Gary Numan, Devo, Wire, and Pere Ubu, not to mention the sui generis psychedelic spaceman Alex Harvey.
Then there's Kraftwerk, who ripped a hole in the space/time continuum that swallowed Bowie, Eno, and a host of others, spawning a prog subgenre, the infelicitously named Krautrock; heavy metal (Blue Oyster Cult, Scorpion, Metallica, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, MC5); and disco (Meco's Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, Carlos Morodor's otherworldly dancefloor assays, various Star Wars and Close Encounters-themed one-hit wonders).
Best of all is Heller's discussion of musical afrofuturism, so often sidelined in studies of both pop culture and science fiction—the influence and mindbending explorations of Sun Ra and his Arkestra; George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and others associated with Parliament and Funkadelic, the super-groups that became known collectively as P-Funk; the Undisputed Truth and Labelle; Nona Hendryx, Marvin Gaye (1978's "A Funky Space Reincarnation"), among other criminally overlooked artists. Heller also unearths sf-tinged reggae and ska, and has a sweet and heartfelt appreciation of the late Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, one of the relatively few women artists in the book. Strange Stars is worth reading for its concise and shrewd reassessments of these musicians alone.
The work of Samuel R. Delany gets cited several times in Strange Stars, but for the most part, we see the usual suspects mentioned over and over again: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Michael Moorcock, Frank Herbert, James Ballard; 2001, Star Trek, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Who. Heller mentions women writers—Anne McCaffry, Octavia Butler, Patti Smith, Ursula K. LeGuin—but too many of the musicians, for all their talk of seeing beyond the stars, seem unable to imagine a future that wasn't predominantly white and male.
Heller has compressed an incredible amount of material into a book that's barely over 200 pages long, not counting a discography and notes (my advance reading copy also lacked an index, which will be in the final version, and would have been really helpful when I tried to remember who originally recorded "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft"1). I suspect the book will spark the inevitable arguments at the Mos Eisley Cantina around more obscure points of prog lore. (Why only a passing mention of Tonto's Expanding Head Band? Why nothing on Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, the album which probably caused the heat death of the genre? Where are Lothar and the Hand People???) Strange Stars is a marvelous guide to a little-explored corner of the musical universe, and I hope other writers and musicians will be inspired to seek out forgotten artists, and even more to create new, even more mindblowing work of their own. Give me pulsars unreal!
1 Klaatu. Later recorded by The Carpenters, and, in a haunting arrangement, the child artists of The Langley School Music Project. Thanks to Jason Heller, now I know, and you do, too.
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