Anne Carson’s newest novel-in-verse, Red Doc>, is the sequel to 1998’s Autobiography of Red, the story of the red-winged Classical Greek monster Geryon reimagined in a contemporary setting. In Autobiography, Geryon is an introverted teenager obsessed with photography, grappling with sexuality, alienation, and thinly-veiled Gertrude Stein references. Teen heartthrob Herakles becomes his lover.
Red Doc>reads like Carson’s mania has been simmering under her skin for years and has suddenly boiled over onto the page in a brilliant catharsis. All of the text (with a few exceptions) is confined to a two-inch wide justified column centered on every page. This is, according to Carson, serendipitous—she clicked the wrong button in a word processor and ended up liking the result. The same goes for the seemingly out-of-place angle bracket in the book’s title—a mistake while saving the file that she decided to keep. Spontaneity and self-awareness like this are part of what keeps the gifted and staggeringly educated Carson humble. “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches Ancient Greek for a living” is all she will print as her bio.
The narrative explores a much-changed Geryon (now shortened to “G”), who tends red musk-oxen, and Herakles (now “Sad,” short for “Sad-but-Great”), a shell-shocked war veteran.Their souring adult relationship, no longer sexual, is summed up as “One / night under the overpass / they’d got the sex whiff / again. Made a few / fumbles. Not enough / juice for the squeeze as / Sad so neatly put it.” In their travels, the two accumulate a bizarre pseudo-mythic menagerie such as G’s favorite ox from his herd, Io, “A / lone white one [who] glows / like an idol,” friend and eccentric artist, Ida, “innocent and filled with / mood like a very tough / experimental baby,” and oracle “4NO” who “sees an aberrant future.” They encounter ice bats “blueblack… absolutely silent… the size of toasters,” and the reprisal of the volcano (a major theme carried over from Autobiography). The story climaxes in a hospital room with the death of G’s mother, described simply and elegantly as “she is released.”
In the wake of this loss, Carson keenly evokes numbness with “Rain continuous / since the funeral a / wrecking rattling / bewildering Lethe- / knuckling mob of rain. A / rain with no instructions.” Such moments of poetic beauty may seem at odds with other bits of postmodern weirdness like G addressing the character known as “CMO” (“chief medical officer”): “You’re / saying Lucky Charms / carry an ancestral curse.” “I’m saying / if the army is issuing your / Luck in the form of / Charms it’s already gone,” but this dichotomy is part of what makes Carson so unique.
She is keenly aware of the difference between poetry and prose, antiquity and modernity, monologue and dialogue, familiar and alien. She walks between all of these down a strange and wonderful two inch road, not sparing a glance for her readers, but holding a hand out behind her for any who choose to take it.
Chad Frame is a poetry student in the MFA program at Arcadia and an editor for Marathon Literary Review. He lives in an outlying Philadelphia suburb too dull to name here and works in luxury retail. His esoteric hobbies include tabletop gaming and fencing. He shares his living space with Jabberwocky, a Maine Coon every bit as large and fearsome as his namesake, but substantially more cuddly and hopefully less vulnerable to vorpal swords.