Red Doc> by Anne Carson
22nd Jan 2014
In Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson twists an ancient myth, in which Geryon is a minor character to be conquered in Herakles’ labours, to cultivate an uneasy love affair between an adolescent red monster and the famous Greek hero. Carson’s Herakles is charming, compulsive and fickle, and Geryon is in awe.
Years after their brief romance, Red Doc> resumes the story. Geryon is now known as ‘G’ and Herakles reappears as the veteran ‘Sad But Great’, or simply ‘Sad’ for short. Middle-aged, sleepy and bereft, G herds his beloved oxen until Sad takes him away to an ice fault, a psychiatric clinic, and a garage called Batcatraz.
Carson expertly deflates the heroic masculinity of antiquity with this venture into the world of Herakles’ post-war recovery and the observation that ‘You read a hundred / military manuals you won’t / find the word kill they trick / you into killing.’
Meanwhile, Io the musk oxen chews the cud and ‘in this tale Sad may be a / goner / but Io’s getting ready / for her free / throw / with one eye on the herd / and the other on that / pyroclastic glow.’
Indeed, as the lava approaches and G, Sad and a kickboxing girl named Ida flee the clinic, it is Io who ascends, high on gorse and soaring through the air. When she begins to fall, G spreads his wings and flies up to save her.
the form is too sparse for punctuation and names are rationed down to acronymsMore fragmented than its predecessor, this version of G’s autobiography is fraught with gaps in the text and leaps of the imagination. The new style, like the brushstrokes across the front cover, reflects some change in pace – Red Doc> is rough and sweeping, a zig-zag road trip through uncertain terrain.
Most remarkably, the majority of Red Doc> is bound between two inches of justified text that run down the centre of the white page like a black cavern, or the ice fault entrance to Batcatraz.
Fissures also make for secrets and trauma, like ‘the momentarily / impaired surface of the / eye of a person who has / just had a thought she will / not tell you’ and much of G’s new excursion is spent skirting around memories that cannot be repeated or travelled.
The wide margins add a spatial dimension to Carson’s brisk tone, her immaculate concision and the comic monotone of her conversations. They are the visual manifestation of her minimalist style: the form is too sparse for punctuation and names are rationed down to acronyms.
For Carson, a classicist by trade, the passage of time often entails the fragmentation of a work. Ancient scripts fade, texts become traces, and the reader is left to work with what little remains. Her work plays at the edge of translation; it is a struggle to time travel by inference and to make up for what has been lost.
Carson’s preoccupation with time is evident throughout her work. Nox is a scrapbook elegy to her estranged brother, pieced together from fragments of contact and placed alongside Catullus‘ poem 101.
Carson defines one word of Catullus’ elegy for his own brother on every concertina page, until her grief is timed across centuries and slowed to the pace of dictionary translation.
In Red Doc>, the mysterious angle bracket demonstrates the racing-forward motion of a sequel set on a road trip. Sad’s friend from the army is cursed with a split-second seerdom – he can predict only the most immediate future, only a fraction ahead of its occurrence.
Time is flustered but not undone. At the end of a page-long list of different sorts of time, Carson concludes: ‘Time passes oh boy. Time / got the jump on me yes it / did.’
Anne Carson was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2000. She was the first woman to win the T. S. Eliot prize for The Beauty of the Husband, and Red Doc>, published by Random House in July 2013, was nominated again this year.