The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley


I keep recommending Maria Dahvana Headley's most recent novel, The Mere Wife, to people, and so it seems I should write a little something about it.

(Had my summer and, especially, fall been less fraught, I would have written about The Mere Wife some time ago, because it's a terrific novel and Maria and I have been friends for more than 20 years now, making me very much inclined to tell the world when I think she's done great work. But life intervened, as it does. Here I am, though: World! The Mere Wife is great work!)

The Mere Wife  slyly elides some of the differences between novels, epics, and narrative poems. Novels are omnivorous monsters that eat up every form and mode they encounter, and a writer who knows this — who, in fact, revels in it — is set to wrangle and wrestle the beast into a powerful shape. Since The Mere Wife is inspired by/riffing on Beowulf, a raid on the fortresses of other storytelling forms is especially appropriate. There is a freshness to this novel's language, structure, and characters because it draws on older traditions than just the tradition(s) of the novel, particularly the novel in contemporary English-language writing. There is a palimpsestic effect to The Mere Wife as its central story of suburban, gated-community life exists within a world of much older tales and more ancient character types.

It would be one thing for this to be a novel that employs narrative moves from Beowulf, throws in a few allusions, updates some names. That would be clever, but not satisfying. (After all, I could just read Beowulf.) There are allusions, certainly, and the occasional plot similarity, but there is something much smarter, more skilled, and ultimately more uncanny here. It's not a re-writing of Beowulf, but rather a writing infused by a spirit of Beowulf, a spirit that has made its way down through the ages, that has called out to the present and found habitation — or inhabitation — here.

(Inevitably, comparisons will be made between The Mere Wife and John Gardner's marvelous Grendel, but it's been over a decade since I last read Grendel, so I wouldn't want to venture any comparison myself. These are quite different books, though each drawn from Beowulf, and each a marvel in its own way.)

The spirit of Beowulf strikes forcefully in the sentences. When Maria and I first met in college, I loved her first for her sense of language, which was always surprising, light, alive, sharp. That sense of language has propelled some of her short stories and moments of her previous novels, but The Mere Wife is the first of her novels where it's felt richly apparent from first page to last, unbridled. More than unbridled: newly developed, as if the encounter with the Old English poet has invigorated the novelist toward a realm of linguistic possibility all her own. Sentence by sentence, this book is thrilling, not so much for what the sentences say as how they say it: the diction tough and Anglo-Saxon, the rhythms distinctive enough to announce themselves, varied enough never to feel heavy-handed. Open a page at random—
The whole planet is paved in the dead, who are ignored so the living can dig their foundations. (p. 33) 
The boy from Herot Hall is smiling, and so is the boy who has portraited himself in scribble, an obliteration. (p. 82) 
A lamp, light bouncing at us, flashing, and I'm starting to shake and fade, starting to feel like shooting into everything, or going flat to the floor, but I don't. (p.102) 
She digs a pit for her marriages and kicks sand over the faces of her former men; she waits for their skeletons to reveal themselves. (p. 175) 
The mothers are the clay pigeons children want to shoot out of the sky. (p. 268)
Every page has gems, but it is not the individual sentences, fine as they are, that led me to gasp with pleasure at the prose — no, what makes these pages so powerful is the accumulation of sentences and paragraphs carefully balanced against each other to set up rhythms and rhymes and juxtapositions and music. Here the ghost of the Beowulf poet shows itself, as the alliterative verse and structured caesuras of the ancient writing find new forms throughout these modern pages. Yet the ghost never takes over, never upstages. It's a quiet haunting, harmonious.

The book's overall structure is also remarkable. The chapters are grouped together by one of the various translations of the initial word of Beowulf, the interjection hwæt, so there are sections called "Say", "Listen", "So", "What", etc. But what's impressive is that each chapter begins with the word of its section (or, occasionally and wonderfully, a homonym or cognate — so, for instance, in the "Hark" section, we have Hark! but also It hearkens back to the war...) The use of various translations of hwæt and the repetition of them at the beginning of each chapter is playful and sets up a certain rhythm, but it serves a thematic purpose, too, bringing to the forefront the question of translation, of position, of perspective: hwæt is one thing, but Hark! is another and Listen... is another. This polyphony gets heightened by the book's multiple points of view: third person and first person, but also the much less common first-person plural, and not just one first-person plural, but two. The effect is to open the novel toward something almost cosmic, while also keeping tight focus on the single specific setting at the heart of the story.

One of the things I most admire in the conception of The Mere Wife is the way it is a novel about the effects of war on warriors, as well as a novel about a country in denial about the wars it creates in its quest for imperial power. Dana Mills, Gren's mother, was a soldier in the desert and barely escaped being executed by enemies. She hides away on a mountain overlooking the home of her childhood, a home now developed beyond recognition into a refuge of the rich. She becomes a wild thing who raises a wild son. The unsettling intelligence of this novel is that it doesn't try to contain or explain away trauma with familiar through-lines, nor does it ransack Freud or the DSM-V or self-help gurus to render human destruction small enough to be contained in narrative. Going back to Beowulf allows a disturbingly uncontained pain, an endlessly open scar that radiates with a centuries-wide swath of atrocity. The Mere Wife is a typically American book in its portrait of suburban wealth, but it is an atypically American book in its portrait of the monsters of American power literally coming home to roost. There's nothing heavyhanded about this, though, which is impressive, because it would be easy for the story to turn hectoring or self-righteous, to thump its schema into predictable forms. But this is a confident book, a mature book, and it knows that everything invoked in the prologue — which, unlike many prologues, proves absolutely essential — is enough to propel what comes later; it trusts that the concept is strong enough to communicate.

Often while reading The Mere Wife, I thought of another novel I read shortly before it: Dale Peck's Night Soil. Both are books about mothers and sons, mountains and history, death, destruction, love, longing, beauty, monsters; both are also filled with marvelous sentences, one page after another of quotable passages. Yet in the end, for all its virtues, I found Night Soil unsatisfying, somehow flat, while The Mere Wife continues to linger in my imagination. Night Soil's structure is partly that of a mystery, partly that of a psychoanalysis session, partly that of a confession, partly that of a dream. You don't really know where it's going until you get to the end, and the end beguiles in a way that sends you back to retrace your footsteps. Almost literally so: After the main narrative ends, a 33-page coda follows, offering a parable of a man in a snowstorm who thinks he is making progress but is unwittingly following his own tracks in a circle. Thus, Night Soil ends by forcing us, the readers, to ask if we have been going in circles while devoting our time to the book. The parable is told through questions asked by novices to masters at an Academy that plays a significant role in the story. Are we readers novices? Have we asked the right questions to tease out the full story and its meanings? Those are questions, it seems, the narrative wants us to ask, but they pose a problem for the writer, who must then be certain that there is something in the book worth the reader's effort in searching for it. For all my appreciation of its images and characters and sentences and questions, by the end of Night Soil, I wasn't sure I could say it was worth the work.

The Mere Wife, on the other hand, similarly prompts us to ask questions about the stories we want, the histories we know, and the perspectives we privilege, but it does so as it moves along, its model not a circle but something more complicated, more jagged. Though I have a soft spot for ouroboric structures that create a sense of metaphysical panic (e.g. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest), a simple circle is just not, for me at least, a very interesting shape for a novel, because if we end up where we began, what's the point of going on the journey at all?

There are mysteries in The Mere Wife (who is Gren's father?), but they lurk in the background or hang out on the sidelines. The narrative propels itself forward, event to event, the past always clawing at the present, with time flensing illusions, pretensions, and old verities.

In The Mere Wife, the characters mostly serve the purposes of characters in epics and legends, not the purposes of social-psychological realism a la John Updike. (Thank god.) They are something more than types, less than fully rounded portraits. If anything, they show the falseness of Forster's simple opposition between flat and round characters, because these characters are both and neither. They are also not role models, which is nice. Too many stories now are little more than morality plays; The Mere Wife has far more to offer with its panoply of broken people who break each other, a cast of characters difficult to embrace but fascinating to watch, each hero also potentially an antagonist. The effect is startling, because the characters and situations feel both familiar and mythic.

Contemplating the world, the universe, history, and herself, Dana Mills says at the end of The Mere Wife, "Nothing is what I thought it was." In some ways, this is true for us, the readers, as well, but not really, not entirely, because through its multiple perspectives, the novel has allowed us a larger vision, less claustrophobic, less bruised and frightened, more open; and so we take on another first-person-plural role: we, the readers, the hearers of the tale — and from such a role we can bring together some broken pieces of the world of this novel and the world of our own circumstances, and we can fill the cracks and set the shards together until, in some way or another, spurred on by the efforts of the novelist, we discover in own minds a new whole.

Hwæt: Yes — Sing — Now—

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