Much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world.
“A conversation is a journey, and what gives it value is fear,” writes Anne Carson in “The Anthropology of Water.” Extrapolating only slightly, it seems appropriate to view the larger body of Carson’s work as one long conversation across literature, a discourse that picks up where the Greeks left off and continues across the millennia. (We’ll return to the alluring aspect of fear later.) Her latest book, Red Doc> (Knopf), continues a conversation Carson has been having throughout her long and storied tenure as a poet, translator, essayist and novelist or, most often, as an alloy of all four.
Carson lays claim to the title of trans-genre laureate, a writer who blurs lines so adeptly that librarians and booksellers must spend grueling hours contemplating shelf space for her books. Red Doc> is neither a novel nor a poem nor a Greek tragedy, but rather some recombinant heterotopia, a space where ideal forms of genre exist only as fragments and echoes of the whole. It unfurls like a tapestry, colored with neoclassical heroes, albino musk ox, ice bats, homicidal cucumbers, choral interludes, oracles, madmen and quacks. Carson has returned to a subject clearly near and dear to her, the refiguring of Greek mythology, specifically the story of the red-winged monster Geyron and his lover-cum-nemesis Herakles. This is familiar territory for the Canadian writer who teaches at the University of Michigan; her earlier (and more accessible) Autobiography of Red was a coming-of-age story for Geyron and Herakles, star-crossed swains who played out their sad destinies against a contemporized setting.
In Red Doc>, Geyron, now called G, lives alone in a hut near a freeway overpass, tending to his sickly mother and prized herd of musk oxen. In the original Greek myth, Herakles must journey to Erytheia and slaughter Geyron’s herd in order to complete his tenth labor. Carson’s adaptation brings the battle-weary Herakles, now called Sad, home safely from the front lines. “I had a tan when I came home no wounds no cuts.” But Sad suffers from symptoms clearly meant to resemble PTSD. Early on, the former lovers are joined by Ida, a mysterious woman who meets Sad in a therapist’s office:
You a Tuesday appointment like me / I guess / always writing in that book / not writing drawing / drawing what / my sunny
self / got a name / Ida / I’m Sad / why / no it’s my name Sad But Great capital S capital B capital G people call
me Sad / that some type of indigenous name / army / army make you have a certain name / make you have a
certain everything / how / orders / but your name is your fate can’t take orders on that / no / no
Carson pits simple, everyday language against atypical formatting. She elides common punctuation (commas and question marks are anathema) and eschews dialogue tags in favor of back-slashes and stanza breaks. She subverts formal expectation, squeezing most of the book’s text into newspaper like columns or using elements borrowed from concrete poetry. Yet the story remains compelling at the same time. The reader is flummoxed, intrigued, pulled along and, above all, curious about what’s coming next.
Minimalist details, playful wit and unorthodox typography control not only the pacing of the story, but also the perspective and characterization of its players. Carson reveals things about these characters—relevant history, details, backstory, yearnings—but she refrains from spelling out meaning or purpose. As Carson told the Paris Review:
I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end, you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.
Carson asks us to think deeply as we read; to travel, to feel, to change. She generates offbeat and peculiar storylines. The language and form charm us like potions, drawing us further into this strange world. Trying to make explicit sense of the ‘events’ only gets in the way of appreciation. Far better to be enchanted than to understand.
In Sam Anderson’s recent (and rare) New York Times profile, Carson quotes Simone Weil by saying that “contradiction is the test of reality.” So it’s hardly surprising to find an abundant trove of contradictory devices in Carson’s work. Her lucid, lyrical prose mesmerizes at times, but her mannerisms can feel evasive and recondite. Though a plot (of sorts) exists in Red Doc>, a traditional design does not bind things together. The story moves in seemingly random jumps, forward and backward across time and space, at times blithely ignoring cause and effect. Instead, it’s Carson’s intricate, carefully nuanced use of layered images and repeated words that give rise to story structure. A reader expecting a linear narrative will be sorely disappointed, but a careful reader, one willing to pay attention and reread, will be rewarded.
For reasons not made entirely clear, Sad and G embark on a desultory journey to the north, leaving Ida behind to watch G’s herd. “Crows as big as barns rave overhead. Still driving north. Night is a slit all day is white.” They get lost. Though, how one can actually get lost without a destination poses an amusing question. Eventually they disappear into a glacier, whereupon G falls into a hole in the ice and Sad abandons him.
Twice in the story, G must take decisive and heroic actions. In both instances, he uncovers his wings—which usually remain hidden beneath his clothes—and flies. Carson reserves some of her finest imagery for the two instances where G takes flight.
He is rising. Air grabs his knees. Out of black nothing into perfect expectancy—flying has always given him this sensation of hope—like glimpsing a lake through trees or that first steep velvet moment the opera curtains part—he is keening down the ice fault. Soul fresh. Wings wide awake. Front body alive in a rush of freezing air.
Carson soars too, above the tedious complaints of her critics who say she’s not poetic enough to be a poet and nor focused enough to be a novelist. Heretical, inventive, daring and dazzling, Carson challenges the settled principles that try to define literature, and in so doing, pushes her vision forward into uncharted worlds. And she does all this while maintaining a sharp sense of humor. As G rises out of the glacier and flies off, he muses sadly, “Am I turning into one of those old guys in a ponytail and wings?”
Guided by ice bats, G touches down at a psych clinic/auto repair shop run by the inquisitive doctor/mechanic named CMO. Carson’s playful use of acronyms as abbreviated identities forms one of many leitmotifs, along with recurrent themes of abandonment, jealousy, and grief. Sad comes to clinic too, as though the clinic was always the destination. Sad reconnects with 4NO, an old war buddy who is a patient. 4NO is the scene stealing prophet, a loveable but deranged oracle who can see five seconds into the future. G asks him what it’s like: “all white all the time / what do you mean / I mean the whole immediate Visible crushed onto the frontal cortex is nothing but white without any remainder.”
These are beguiling, bumptious characters. They are wild and sad and wonderfully complex. Ida robs a laundromat, nearly gets caught, flees the police and drives to the clinic, whereupon she has sex with Sad in the laundry room beneath G’s bed. G learns the details of Sad’s “pesky traumatic memories,” which involved shooting an unarmed woman 75 times in the head. They are also literate folks. G reads Proust, Emily Bronte and the Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms. Sad reads self-help books and Christina Rossetti. 4NO is staging a one-man adaptation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, renaming it Prometheus Rebound.
On the night of the play, a near riot ensues when Sad attacks Ida in a mistaken combat flashback. A patient dies in the melee. Ida, Sad, G and 4NO then drive away from the clinic, Sad bound in a straight jacket. Unknowingly, they are driving straight into the lava flow of an erupting volcano.
In the defamiliarized landscape of Red Doc>, the reader must stay alert for uncanny reversals, choral interludes from the Wife of Brain, the sudden appearances by Hermes in a sliver tuxedo, and Carson’s delightfully bizarre aphorisms. “If the army is issuing your Luck in the form of Charms it’s already gone,” CMO says, explaining why soldiers never ate the Lucky Charms provided in their field rations. Of course, Sad did eat the cereal, and then brutal violence ensued.
What Carson accomplishes in her writing is an upheaval of expectation. She pulls at meaning, at definitions, at connotations and denotations of words, at the very fabric of language, unraveling that wonderful tapestry she sets out to create. As Lt. M’hek, the officer on Sad’s Warrior Transition Team, tells G: “at the bottom of the ocean is a layer of water that has never moved this I heard on BBC last night fresh idea to me.” Above, at the ocean’s surface, it’s easy to imagine Carson pressing down on the waves, hoping to eventually force that still water to move.
And make no mistake, reading anything by Carson is a journey, fraught with peril, difficulty and, yes, a hint of fear. “What is the fear inside language?” she asks in “The Anthropology of Water.” By excavating ancient myths, by reconfiguring monsters and villains and gods into contemporary characters, Carson reminds us that literature may not possess answers. Mere words may not comfort us from our fears, but they can help us ask the big questions. The British writer and critic Gabriel Josipovici picks up a similar idea in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? “And novels, (William) Golding tells us, are projections of our imagination on reality; but they are not meaningless projections. They have a purpose: to protect us from the reality of our deaths.”
Like Prometheus, it’s easy to feel chained to the stone of routine and habituation, reading the same book (or variation of it) over and over again, our livers gnawed continuously by the eagle of market forces and bestseller lists. When do our deepest questions get addressed? The real joy of reading Anne Carson is that she perpetually engages with these questions. Though there may not be definitive answers, at least there is room to contemplate, to reflect, to query the void as we barrel ahead toward the lava flow of our own extinction. What will save us? Prophets? Poets? The wisdom of the ages? Or maybe we are beyond saving, and can only learn to dance a little as we approach the end.
Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us. That creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons. (from Decreation)
Carson’s not writing poems or novels, she’s dancing a tango on the page. Uncertainty and language are her partners. The Ineffable twists and turns with the Great Span of Words.
In the end, the heroes survive. G’s mother dies and the chorus sings. A funeral ushers the sad story towards its conclusion. “Rain continuous since the funeral a wrecking rattling bewildering Lethe-knuckling mob of rain. A rain with no instructions.” Perhaps this is the great wisdom: there are no instructions, only a bewildering cleansing, a rain of words to obscure the tears. Carson leaves us alone to ponder the mystery. She offers no answers, only provides the glorious space for that pondering.
Caution is best. Luck essential. Hope a question. Down the street she notices a man in his undershirt standing looking up at the rain. Well not every day can be a masterpiece. This one sails out and out and out.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.
- “…(that angle-bracket is, yes, a part of the title: “Red Doc >” was the default name Carson’s word-processing program gave to the file, and she stuck with it).” “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson” Sam Anderson, NY Times, March 14, 2013↵