The Beheading Game
Hardback, 248 pages
Flamboyant New York theatre director Ren is passionately in love with Jack, a younger man who is still under the thumb of his conservative CEO father, Malcolm. Jack's differences with his father range from the fact that Jack is still in the closet regarding his sexuality to having to endure his father's platitudes about self-improvement and his contempt for Ren. The fact that his father's oil company is dumping toxic waste into the Hudson River doesn't help since cleaning up the river is one of Jack's missions in life. Tensions mount when Jack becomes critically ill with lymphoma and has to undergo a bone marrow transplant which will either cure him or kill him.
At the same time that Ren is tending to Jack in the hospital, he is busy staging his version of "Gawain and the Green Knight." His struggles with Malcolm over Jack's love lead Ren to question the values of the medieval story especially the blind loyalty of the young vassal to his lord and he ends by inverting these feudal values in a wild cross-gendered sail against the currents of History.
Behind this shift in dramaturgy is Ren's gradual realization that the battles that count for him as a modern (loving) man are fought by changing bedpans and bandages, not waving lances and swords. Life and theatre become intertwined as Ren increasingly lives his life as drama, enacting ever more baroque and occasionally risky fantasies of revenge and Love's riumph.
Beyond the ambiguities of gender and sexual orientation, The Beheading Game finds that the issues of love and death, honesty and loyalty, are the same for all of us.
Who would have thought that "Gawain and the Green Knight" could lend itself to such a brilliant — and thoroughly contemporary — retelling? In Webster's astute, comic ... and complex triangle, love does battle with fear, betrayal, humiliation and rage.Tragedy seems inevitable. How Webster avoids such a conclusion, deftly re-writing the Gawain story in the process, is a marvel of novelistic art and human understanding.
— Madelon Sprengnether, author of Crying at the Movies: A Film Memoir
- Webster's new novel takes us on a tour of the labyrinths of desire and dread in which the games of love are played out. Her daring juxtaposition of the medieval romance of "Gawain and the Green Knight" with throughly contemporary dramas of gender bending gives her tale special, mythic resonance.
— Sandra Gilbert, author of The Madwoman in the Attic and No Man's Land: Sex Changes: The Place of the Woman Writer in the 20th Century
- The Beheading Game is an affecting love story that combines a variety of unusual elements. The terror of loss, the pain of seeing a loved one suffer, the struggle against prejudice, impulses of jealous rage, and an intricate play between theatricality and authenticity are all brought together in a compelling narrative where hope comes persuasively to triumph over fear.
— Robert Alter, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age
Love in unusual places: A heterosexual grandmotherThe Washington BladeFebruary 17, 2006Reviewed by Katherine Volin
HOW DOES A straight grandmother end up writing a gay male love story? Not intentionally, in the case of Brenda Webster, a 69-year-old writer from Berkeley, Calif. Prior to writing The Beheading Game, Webster's biggest departure from non-fiction writing was a "basically autobiographical" novel, she says. In addition to that novel, Webster has also written two critical studies of poetry, a memoir and edited the journals of her mother, abstract expressionist painter Ethel Schwabacher.
"This is a real take-off in that there is no obvious connection to my life," Webster says.
Plenty more subtle connections exist, however. Moving from memoir-based writing to a gay love story may sound like a giant leap, but the concept evolved slowly from two stories of personal interest to Webster: the epic alliterative poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and her friend's struggle with lymphoma.
Her work with "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" became especially personal as a graduate student when Webster wrote a Freudian analysis of the 14th-century poem.
"None of the medievalists that I sent this paper to appreciated it," Webster says. "I still was obsessed with the story. I was upset, since I liked the story so much, that women had such a bad part in it."
Webster started writing The Beheading Game as a way to re-examine the poem from a female perspective. Her book, named after one of the plots in the poem, began as a story of Gawain's sister taking over his armor after his death.
"After about 150 pages, I saw that I was writing a feminist track, and it was humorless and didactic - in short, it was boring," Webster says. "So I threw it out."
In the meantime, one of Webster's closest female friends had been diagnosed with lymphoma and was considering a stem-cell transplant. "The emotional strength of my involvement with her catalyzed something and made me realize I could help; put the two things together," Webster says.
Put the two together she did. The Beheading Game tells the story of a New York theater director, Ren, who is in the midst of staging a production of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Ren is in love with Jack, a closeted younger man with a tyrant father, who falls ill with lymphoma.
As Ren struggles with caring for Jack while interacting with his father, he looks to the values of heroism and loyalty that he finds within "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" to guide him.
Writing the book was part of the healing process for Webster and her friend, the author says. "I was writing her trauma, and that made her feel better," Webster says.
Using a gay couple instead of a heterosexual couple allowed for a more even playing field, she says.
"It's sort of also about sharing power," Webster says.
Although using a same-sex relationship as a literary device appealed to her, Webster says that a relationship between two women would have been too autobiographical. "People asked why I didn't use two women and that would have been too close [to reality]," Webster says. "What I really needed was an androgynous person — not a man or woman, but someone who had elements of both. We're all androgynous in my opinion."
To research the gay characters, Webster, who has plenty of gay male friends, says that she read an assortment of gay books, including all of Edmund White's. "I did a lot of reading and reading fiction gives you a very good idea of what's going on," Webster says. "I steered away from much sexual description, because that I don't know, but I can deal with love.".
Copyright © 2006 Washington Blade/ Window Media Production
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