My first experience with Anne Carson was two weeks ago and it has placed her firmly on my shelf of must-read-everything-ever-wrote writers. Everything I am going to say about her has undoubtedly been said before, by people with a better education in both the classics and poetry, but here is my pale attempt to write about my own experience of reading her for the first time. And it is somewhat incomplete because I am still thinking about this book, and will continue to think about it until I’ve read more of her work.
I’m not going to write much about the story of The Autobiography of Red, not least of all because I am finding basic plot discussions a bit tedious these days. I just want to dive into the questions and the way the writing worked to affect me, and I’m going to assume that anyone with a computer can look up the basics if necessary.
But the premise of The Autobiography of Red, as explained by Carson in the book’s first section, is worth noting because it helps situate the reader inside Carson’s unique vision. The novel/poem is a re-imagining of an ancient story called “The Geryoneis” (the killing of a red monster named Geryon by Herakles) as told by Stesichoros (a Greek poet whose “words were collected in twenty-six books of which there remain to us a dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments.”)
Carson writes: “…the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.”
Which is essentially what Carson then does. She shakes. She imagines. She re-creates. She conducts us through a handsomely imagined landscape that is bound to the unorthodox approach that Stesichoros took of positioning his poetic viewpoint behind the weaker character (Geryon the monster) instead of the victorious one (Herakles the hero).
It seems intuitive to us, modern readers, that Geryon’s story is the more interesting one, but I wonder if this was not the case for Stesichoros’s contemporary readers. And so I also wonder if Carson’s choice to dance around that notion of “killing” (How many different ways can you “kill” someone?) and turn Geryon and Herakles into lovers was a nod in that direction. The story is provocative and profound because of this choice. Any re-imagining is bound to take immense liberties with the original—almost always for the best—but Carson’s vision is particularly daring. (And yet, surprisingly somehow, so easily imaginable.)
The novel is a poem, so that’s something you have to engage with right away and it makes for a different kind of reading. Poetic narrative is often about the continual gesture toward something that is exceptionally pointed emotionally, but maybe hard to understand (at least this is how poetry works for me) and then shifting the emphasis to unexpected objects and motions. Throughout The Autobiography of Red there is this kind of movement
Something that I found very curious, but also really effective (this is a love story, isn’t it? And love stories, even tragedies, can be really cheesy), is the way she allows the poem to be funny—in a lot of different ways, smart and ironic but also just giggle-worthy—and even a little corny sometimes:
…Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice…
It’s a little silly, that “opposite of blindness” but I love it all the same. This is adolescent love we’re talking about here.
Then there are moments that the emotional pitch of a line is so incredibly spot-on, so chillingly clever, like this moment when Geryon (who might be dreaming?) is in a bar with a woman facing him. They banter back and forth, it’s both funny and profound and then this:
She studied him a few moments then said slowly—but the gnome gave the piano
a shove against the wall
and Geryon almost missed it—Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said it looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.
It doesn’t resonate very well taken out like this, but that line, “Who can a monster blame for being red?” brought chills to me while reading. And there are so many moments like this, which I think stand out all the more because of the first kind of writing I mention, the silly writing, the slightly tongue-in-cheek and unafraid-to-dance-with-cliché kind of writing.
The book moves forward in a linear way, following the relationship between Herakles and Geryon and eventually a third person, Ancash. It is truly nothing more than a simple love triangle but there is so much going on in Carson’s seemingly-easy lines. Questions on nostalgia for old relationships, on desire, on power dynamics, on how people (even strangers) affect one another:
…. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.
Geryon knew he must not go back into the cloud. Desire is no light thing.
Finally, I love the way she places the story as far from a Greek setting as possible. And she doesn’t make it anonymous in that shift away from its origins, she names places, she makes it contemporary and specific and manages—wonderfully, incredibly—to not only hold onto the essence of the original, a kind of “classical” feel but to engage with questions of desire as we are exploring and asking them today. It seems like this might be easy, but I don’t think it is, and that mixture of the ancient and the modern is especially compelling.