Review: Red Doc> by Anne Carson, A Medley of Monsters and Men
Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (released March 5th from Knoph) is a follow-up to her acclaimed 1998 novel in verse, Autobiography of Red. It is part poem, part play/tragedy/opera, part novel, and it is what we have come to expect from the genre-bending Canadian poet who writes poems to be danced to and a book on one continuous sheet of paper, folded up accordion-style within a box. It is what we have come to expect, and it does not disappoint.
Summary: Autobiography of Red was a re-telling of the Greek myth of Geryon and Herakles (Hercules). Carson takes characters from mythology and places them in our contemporary world without removing the elements of mythology. Geryon was a little red monster-boy who had wings and went to school, studied volcanoes, and fell forcefully in love with Herakles. If Autobiography of Red was the story of Geryon growing up, Red Doc> is the story of his growing old. Geryon, who now goes by G., and Herakles, who now goes by Sad but Great (after being traumatized by war) reunite many years later (perhaps centuries, as time does not behave normally in the book). Together with G.’s mother, the prophet 4NO, a CMO that Sad knew in the war, and a herd of oxen, they journey to yet another volcano (with pit-stops at TV interviews and psychiatric clinics). Sound absurd? Confusing? Don’t give up before you start! Carson is a master of taking the most bizarre fragments and piecing them together perfectly.
Review: There are three main forms in Red Doc>. There are pages with slim blocks of poetry in the center, sections of dialogue separated by back slashes, and the Greek-style chorus parts. There is a narrative arc which frames the loose flow of poetic language and probably the best description is found in the book itself: “prose is a house, poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it.” The lack of punctuation within sentences may seem hard to follow at first, but it really has a rhythm and a flow, and once you catch onto it, sentences like this
“Cupboards stand ajar streaks mark the floor a float of dust and haste and terror just settling.”
make sense. The images they evoke are floating, falling, flying, much like the words are doing. There is also a fragmented feel to the various sized unpunctuated sentences. Thinking about the “>” in the title, the greater than sign, Kathryn Schulz says, “What Red Doc> is greater than is the sum of its parts. This is Carson’s obsession, and her gift: to make meaning from the fragments we get, which are also all we get—of time, of the past, of each other.”
It’s the truth of that notion, the small bits of time we get with those we love, the small pieces of themselves they give us, being all we get, that come through the most bizarre of Carson’s scenes. The beauty and the sadness of it. The book balances surreal scenes in glacial lakes and volcanoes with very real moments in hospitals and beds. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the scene where G.’s mother is dying:
“He hates waiting for her to wince […] I look / awful don’t I. No you look / like my Ma. Now she / winces. In later years this / is the one memory he / wishes would go away”
“When he is there they / lift the stones together. / The stones are her lungs.”
Carson has this uncanny ability to take you from ice bats catching and carrying a musk-ox who got high from some gorse and thought she could fly, to heart-wrenching moments that echo our own lives. Although the novel is heavily referential–Proust, Daniil Kharms, Emily Dickinson, Greek mythology– you do not by any means need to get all of the references to thoroughly enjoy this book (although, I would recommend reading Autobiography first). The story of Geryon/G. is, at its most simple, the monster as a man; the unfamiliar, the strange, becoming familiar, becoming achingly human. The lovesick red-winged monster demonstrates, in both books, the allure of flying and that heaviness that weighs us all down.
Read an excerpt here.
Buy the book here.
What did you think of Red Doc>? Comment with questions or thoughts!