Feb/Mar 2013

Stories in a Classical Mode

Parul Sehgal


When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own elegy for a brother—illustrated with collages, photographs, and scraps of letters. The pages folded concertina-style into a gray box, its shape suggesting the self-enclosure of grief and the cold slab of a headstone. In 2012, Carson updated Sophocles’s Antigone, another story of a sister grieving the death of her brother, in Antigonick, a hand-lettered translation with playful drawings and enough creative license to include references to Virginia Woolf and Hegel. Even if one of her books looks conventional, trust that hidden architecture undergirds the story. In her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (1998), Carson retold the myth of Herakles and his tenth labor: slaying the red, winged monster Geryon and stealing his oxen. She made the two men lovers and narrated their romance in a nonchronological hodgepodge of styles—the academic essay, the interview—the chapters formally different and discrete as rooms.

In her new book, Red Doc>, Carson picks up the story of Geryon again, fashioning from it yet another curious object. The sentences are squeezed into a tight column, about an inch and a half long. Scenes are sequential and cut occasionally to witchy pronouncements from a Greek chorus who call themselves the Wife of Brain. Surrounded by acres of white space, the text looks like tracks in snow.

When we left Geryon in Autobiography, he was in Buenos Aires, the unhappy party in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles’s new lover. At the beginning of Red Doc>, he’s older, still unlucky, still tending his animals and losing his looks. “Am I / turning into one of those / old guys in a ponytail and / wings he thinks sadly.” He’s spent the last seven years reading la recherche du temps perdu.(“Reading it every day,” he tells his mother, “was like having / an extra unconscious.”) Fortuitously, he’s shaken out of his stupor and self-pity by the reappearance of his old love, now a war veteran who calls himself Sad. They meet a delightfully deranged artist named Ida, and embark on a desultory journey over a glacier, into a body shop–cum–psychiatric clinic. They pick up Hermes—in Greek mythology the cunning messenger of the gods—as a hitchhiker. They sleep with each other and squabble and leave Geryon at his mother’s deathbed. It’s Alice in Wonderland without the philosophy, just the nonsense and surreal size play: “Ice bats . . . the size of toasters” and “crows as big as barns / rave overhead.”

In Carson’s work, philosophy and literary criticism (or even their parodies) have functioned as a trellis around which scenes are strung. Formal structures and especially the fragment allow her to pose questions with and within her work, to insinuate and tease, and she’s at her best in the interrogative mood, as in her book The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001). Because Red Doc> lacks this scaffolding, her players skitter in constant and confused motion. This wouldn’t matter so much if the story were strong enough to hold them, if the characters were, on some level, enacting psychological or philosophical questions. But Red Doc> is only superficially interested in narrative. It’s a long, lovely line to nowhere, a beautiful surface. The language doesn’t exist to take us inside the characters; it’s just so many daubs of paint, utterly its own end.

Geryon, Sad, and Ida are never known to us or to one another. They are never truly tested. They remain their evocative names. The aphorisms are surprisingly limp; too many riddles and jokes fall flat. There is a rather rote treatment of shell shock and more than a few contrived scenarios. But give Carson a text to play with, and the book leaps to life:

. . . Proust
observes the momentarily
impaired surface of the
eye of a person who has
just had a thought she will
not tell you. It traces a
fissure in the pupil and
disappears back down its
own involuntary depths.
Watch the wake.

“The word conversation / means ‘turn together,’” Carson tells us. But in this book she is never so fettered. She can turn without us, and usually does. Now, we’re on a talk show. Now, in a bat cave (the wonderfully named “Batcatraz”). Now, we’re watching an ox spin in the sky. Dream logic is exhausting, and especially so in this particular form, which forces our eyes to dart so continually across the narrow band of words that we risk going cross-eyed.

Comparisons to Autobiography of Red are unfair but inevitable. Red Doc> isn’t pendant to its predecessor. It doesn’t pick up and continue any strands of thought or plot. (Instead, the one event both books refer to—the original meeting of Geryon and Herakles—is represented two different ways. In the first book, Carson writes that Geryon and Herakles met at a bus station, when Herakles stepped off a bus from New Mexico. In the second book, for no apparent reason, it’s Geryon stepping off the bus.) But readers will come to it looking forAutobiography of Red’s tenderness and heat, its many masks, its frank sexuality, and its opinions on the adjective and Gertrude Stein, and they will be disappointed. Nor will they find the careful plait of character and voice: The child Geryon, watching his mother prepare to go out, observes, “She had all her breasts on this evening.” Style doesn’t emanate from the story the same way in Red Doc>, but there are a few lovely instances, as when we enter the consciousness of an ox grazing and warily observing a new herder. “M’hek walks slightly / behind her. He’s not usual. / The wind is from the north. / Usual. / Her head itches. / Usual. She stops and / lowers her head to scrape / one horn against a patch of / gorse.” These pastoral snapshots are the book’s strongest moments (“Ponies in a circle / with noses together and / tails blown straight out / horizontal to the wind”), full of lush, delirious fugues (“Dry / little sound is a bird’s / neckbones sifting into place / to sing”).

Red Doc> is, finally, a slender offshoot of a major work. And perhaps it announces itself as such with its title suggesting a computer file, a draft, a place of play. It’s suspended between what it is and what we want it to be, in Carson’s own words, “caught between the tongue and the taste.”

Parul Sehgal is the winner of the Nona Balakian Award for criticism and an editor at the New York Times Book Review.

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