Monster in Love: A Review of Anne Carson’s Red Doc

Red Doc 737x1024 Monster in Love: A Review of Anne Carsons Red Doc

Red Doc> will be published by Alfred A. Knopf on March 11, 2013

Throughout her career Anne Carson has published essays, translations, poems, criticism, opera, and prose, though perhaps her most well-known book is a novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red. Published in 1998, Autobiography of Red was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a National Book Critics Award Finalist. It tells the story of Geryon, a winged red monster, as he comes of age, finds love, and is ultimately heartbroken. Due to Autobiography‘s popularity, its sequel Red Doc> is one of this year’s most anticipated poetry releases. Here, Geryon becomes G., still a winged red monster, but now an adult. Though he faces a new set of struggles and is surrounded by new characters in his life, or rather old characters transformed, the book delivers another captivating and emotional tale.

Though billed as poetry, Red Doc> reads like a novel as the narrative unfolds chronologically. The sequel trades the long lines of Autobiography of Red in for slim largely-justified columns of text, which are occasionally interrupted by centered pieces titled “Wife of Brain.” The “Wife of Brain” sections work similarly to a Greek chorus in that they comment on the action of the story and help advance the narrative. This touch is no surprise coming from Carson, who is a Classics scholar.

In this story, G. no longer carries a camera with him everywhere, nor does he spend his time considering German philosophy, as he does in Autobiography of Red. However, he is still quiet and reflective, only now his attention is turned to the works of Proust and the Russian poet Daniil Kharms. And though he is stronger than he was before, he still seems large-hearted, fragile, and damaged by love. His companions are Ida, an artist and kickboxer, and Sad But Great, a war veteran who appears to suffer from PTSD. When Ida goes to introduce Sad to G., she discovers that they knew each other already: “HE WAS FOURTEEN / it was years ago and Sad’s / name wasn’t Sad yet.” One can assume that back then his name was Herakles, since, in Autobiography of Red, Geryon was fourteen when he met and fell in love with Herakles, here aptly described as “first comet,” due to the relationship’s destructive nature.

Perhaps the most playful of the references to Autobiography of Red is when Sad asks G “What ever / happened to your / autobiography [...] you were always fiddling / with it in the old days,” and G. responds, “Nothing was happening in my life,” and the two look at each other and laugh. Thematically there are ties back to the first book too, with its focus on how love can affect someone, as well as the presence of a volcano, and of course references to Greek mythology, which in Red Doc> has Io as G.’s beloved ox and Hermes, a man in a silver suit, who may or may not be ushering the characters towards death. Even though there are connections between the two books, it is not necessary to have read Autobiography in order to read and understand its sequel.

In Autobiography of Red, Geryon represents an eyewitness, or the One Who Went and Saw and Came Back. And G. continues in that role here. Among the things he witnesses are Sad, his lover, sleeping with someone else, Sad’s psychiatric break, and his own mother’s death. And though there is pain, he survives each. After his mother’s death, Carson writes, “The / weeping has been arriving / about every seven / minutes. In days to / come it will grow less.” And ultimately that is why a reader may be drawn to the strange tale of this winged red monster: he is much like us. When we feel like we can’t go on, we somehow do. She transforms the strange into something wholly recognizable and human.

As with many Anne Carson books I’ve encountered, I feel like there is a lot more going on in Red Doc> than I’m capable of recognizing, but my lack of knowledge in Greek literature does not hinder my enjoyment of the book. Perhaps this is related to what the chorus says in one of the “Wife of Brain” pieces:

what is the difference between

poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose

is a house poetry a man in flames running

quite fast through it

or when it meets the mind waves appear

And that holds true for Red Doc> as it rushes along with its smart dialogue and fast-paced and dramatic plot. It meets the brain and waves appear, with its rippling effects lasting well after the book has concluded.

Gina Myers is a staff writer who recently reviewed Christa Parravani’s Her. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Hold It Down (Coconut Books, April 2013) and A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009). She lives in Atlanta, GA.

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