Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse
Author: Anne Carson
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Genre: Literary Fiction, Criticism, Poetry, Myth (totally defies classification)
Where I got it: Bought it used, at the Goodwill
Challenges: None, but I did want to read more poetry this year.
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself and adjective meaning "placed on top," "added," "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seen fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.And I was hooked. This is page 4 of the prologue to Anne Carson's "novel in verse," in which she describes the material that underlies her rewriting of the myth of Geryon based on fragments of the Geryonais by the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus. Carson describes Stesichorus thus: "He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet," and she credits him as a liberator of adjectives. Much of the prologue and subsequent appendices are ruminations on language, as in the above quoted passage, that color the reading of the body of the text. The prologue, which is entitled "Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?" is also a subtle satire of academic writing (see the colon in the title) and of framing devices, which continues through to the understated, but comic interview with Stesichoros that serves as the book's epilogue.
And then there is what comes in the middle. Carson's rewriting of the Geyonais is a contemporary story of a young boy, who is also a dragon with red wings, who also might be a mythical being worshiped and feared by a South American village. Geryon is a lonely child, plagued by an acute understanding of how words and things are and are not related. This relationship is captured by Carson's unique, often strange and disconcerting, and almost always unusually poignant word choice. She describes Geryon's mother as "rhinestoning past on her way to the door. She had all her breasts on this evening." Or as Geryon and friends sit stoned, "Wrongness came like a long finger chopping through the room and he ducked. What was that? said one of the others turning towards him centuries later." She says things like, "one of those moments that is the opposite of blindness," a moment that we might not have words for. Geryon is very aware of those moments, and often verbalizes them in ways that are not tired. The book is and is not Geryon's autobiography that he begins as a child using sculpture, and which he later continues using photography (although he is originally disturbed by photography, by the relationship between the real and the representational). These are all typical themes of the postmodern: reification, representation, the real. The book is also pastiche. And yet, reading Carson feels like reading something new, like she is teaching us new ways to understand storytelling.
And also, Geryon falls in love. The object of his affection is Herakles, who in the Stesichoros myth, comes to the island where the red monster Geryon lives and steals his beautiful red cattle. In Carson's retelling, Herakles comes and goes in Geryon's life and certainly steals something from Geryon. He seems to steal some of the mystery of the world that Geryon sees. In the book, there is some play on the word "meat" beginning in the prologue with this description of the "original" fragments of the Geryonias: "[T]he fragments of the Geryonais itslef read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat." Scraps of meat may refer to substance, to the heart, and also to the phallus. Meat might be what is stolen from Geryon. All of this confusion of meanings and metaphor untangles itself, winding through the love story, and the story of Geryon's search for himself, or for his meaning.
In the end, there is the strange anachronistic interview in which the long deceased Stesichoros discusses his writing process. He claims, "I was (very simply) in charge of seeing for the world." Of course, any good critic knows that writing is an act of creation and reproduction, an act that is layered throughout this thin volume in many different forms. In the end, the book is many things, but not many that can be defined. The end feels like an ironic wink at anyone who intends to try to unravel it.