Sunday 28 September 2014

Fragmentation, helter-skelter: Anne Carson’s Red Doc>

Once upon a time I lived in Stesichoros Street, in Athens.  In my mind’s eye I can look from the balcony into the crevasse of the street… where a red, winged man is herding his musk oxen through what space remains between parked cars, apartment-block entrances and wisteria. 

Stesichoros. Photo: Oxyrhynchus Online
I knew then that Stesichoros was one of those ancient poets surviving only in fragments – of which more turn up sometimes, on papyri recovered from the Egyptian desert, enough for a Cambridge Classical Text with commentary to be coming out soon.  Stesichoros was born in a Greek settlement in Sicily, and flourished either side of 600BC: an epic poet, post-Homeric and pre-Greek tragedy. He wrote a long poem, the Geryoneis, about the tenth labour of Herakles in which the hero visits a red island and steals its red cattle from a red, winged monster called Geryon, whom he kills. 

It’s interesting, as Anne Carson says in her 1998 book The Autobiography of Red, which took the Geryon myth as its starting point, that Stesichoros chose to write from the victim’s perspective.  Interesting that one ancient authority said about him: “What a sweet genius in the use of adjectives!”  Maybe, Carson suggests, he opened out the descriptive world, departing from Homeric stock epithets.  (I cross-checked that quote, not because there is the slightest doubt about Anne Carson’s scholarship, but because she plays around with the reader.) 
Who wouldn’t love ancient literary fragments?  There’s the Indiana Jones thrill, and then there’s fragmentation in poetry from The Waste Land to Flarf.

In The Autobiography of Red, Geryon is growing up in a world both mythical and modern.  He has a teenage love affair with Herakles, who leaves him; they meet again some years later.  The book is full of love, heartbreak and longing; it’s also funny and, thanks to the extreme energy of the language, exhilarated.  Here’s an extract chosen more or less at random (as the desert might offer up) from ‘XI. Hades’. The whole poem’s in this form.

is something you know
instinctively at fourteen and can still remember even with hell in your head
at sixteen. They painted the truth
on the long wall of the high school the night before departing for Hades.
Herakles’ home town of Hades
lay at the other end of the island about four hours by car, a town
of moderate size and little importance
except for one thing. Have you ever seen a volcano? said Herakles.
Staring at him Geryon felt his soul
move in his side. Then Geryon wrote a note full of lies for his mother
and stuck it on the fridge.
They climbed into Herakles’ car and set off westward. Cold green summer night.

In Red Doc> Geryon is older, known as G.  Herakles reappears as a traumatised war veteran called Sad but Great, Sad for short.  There’s an artist called Ida, “innocent and filled with / mood like a very tough / experimental baby”.  There’s a road trip for most of the book, through fire, ice and a psychiatric clinic; G’s herd of musk oxen (they have a dance scene); Hermes (in a silver tuxedo), CMO, 4NO (see here), Lieutenant M’hek and Io (a white musk ox); and G’s mother, who dies at the end:

                           And the
reason  he cannot bear her
dying is not the loss of her
(which is  the future)   but
that dying puts  the two of
them    (now)    into    this
nakedness together that is
unforgivable.  They do not
forgive it.   He turns away.

Grief, trauma and disillusionment replace the youthful passions in Autobiography, but the excitement level remains as high.  Red Doc> often reads like a series of disjointed fragments: for example, how did the road trip start?  There’s no scene setting equivalent to the Hades passage above; it’s as if that bit’s still buried in the sand.  Personal pronouns are used without the character they refer to being named, a gap- and confusion-creating tactic.  Sometimes a disconnected voice called Wife of Brain comes in, a song-like Greek chorus crossed with an oracle: helpful exposition + further mystification. 

Otherwise the book is mostly in columns, one per page:

THE   ICE  FAULT   is  a  slot
in the  ice  as tall as a man
that  vanishes   back    into
shadow.      A     smell    of
something      brisk      and
incongruous         laundry?
sunlight?   lingers   at   the
entrance.  G  drops  to  his
knees  to  peer  in.     Cold
stabs    up    through    his
trousers.         Sad      has
retreated  to  the  car  and
started  the  engine  which
echoes           monstrously
everywhere.   Moving  out!
Sad yells putting the car in

This helter-skelter format makes the reader zoom down the page, bumping from one side to another – it’s possible, and perhaps best, to read Red Doc>very fast indeed and (unlike a newspaper) several times, the opposite of how a scholar might read a papyrus.  (Daisy Fried in the New York Times says the form creates “a chute for language”.)  The text even looks like the narrow columns that ancient papyri were written in.  That’s not deliberate: an NYT interview explains, “Carson hit a wrong button, and it made the margins go crazy. She found this instantly liberating. The sentences, with one click, went from prosaic to strange, and finally Carson understood — after years of frustration — how her book was actually supposed to work”.  The > in the title was also computer-generated.  And then there’s this:

Meanwhile     in      another
room   of  the   clinic  G   is
dreaming       of        Daniil
Kharms.   They  are driving
along  in  a   paper  car.   G
has  a big  roll  of newsprint
which  he   is   cutting  into
stretches    of    road    and
leaning out  to toss them in
front  of  the  car.    This  is
hard    to    do    from    the
passenger  seat  and  Daniil
Kharms    has     to     keep
swerving the car to stay on
the road.   Is he getting fed
up?    G     worries.    Daniil
Kharms turns to him.    Cut
me  an  incognito  he  says.
G  goes white  with  shame.
He hadn’t  even  thought of
this!   Daniil  Kharms  could
have been saved!    He sits
up  suddenly   drenched  in
ringing.  Phone.

The book / road trip devouring its own columns, faster than they can be written…  (DK was a surrealist and absurdist writer from the early Soviet period, who died in a psychiatric ward in prison during the siege of Leningrad.)  Anyway, Carson didn’t just fit narrow margins to the text after her discovery; if so, some of the lines would have held more words.  The form must have helped her shape the writing. 
Then there’s dialogue, with slashes which score the rapid play and overlay of ordinary conversation; here’s part of the opening scene where G and his mother are talking.

                                                               / just got out of
                                   the army / wounded /

  messed up / are they giving him care / a guy shows
                                   up  with  a  padded  envelope
                                   of    drugs    every   night    I

it’s care / he staying with you / for a while / behaving
                                   himself  /  some  days  he sits
                                   around    reading     Christina

     Rossetti some days he comes out of the bathroom
                                   covered     in       camouflage
                                   paint    /    keep   him   away

your herd /

Sometimes Red Doc> reads like a climate change near-disaster movie of Hollywood proportions, or a quest / ordeal: G and friends journey through an alien northern landscape experiencing both fire and ice, and…

               Ice bats!  They
are  blueblack.  They are
absolutely   silent.   They
are  the size  of  toasters.
And they are drafting him
down  the  ice  fault  with
eerie  gentle   purpose.

Their roosting-place is Batcatraz, in what turns out to be the wall of a car-repair workshop, which turns into the clinic: dream-like shifts.  Bats, batty…  Carson told the NYT that Red Doc> was “a mess, obstacle course, uphill grapple in the dark, almost totally disoriented and discontented experiment every minute of the thousand or so years it took to work out.”  It reads as if written as fast as physically possible, and as if the process was a lot of fun.  I hope at least the fun is true.

Fire and ice join other opposites: lover / family, introvert (G) / extrovert (Sad), thought / speech, animal (the herd) / human.  Sad’s post-traumatic stress adds a contemporary angle on terror.

Red Doc> comes with no context-setting introduction: you have to go to Autobiography of Red for that.  I think it helps.  Last week I was discussing Red Doc> with some friends (who hadn’t read Autobiography).  We were 50/50 split: sheer excitement at form and language pulled us through, or the difficulty was overwhelming.  One criticism we all had of Red Doc> was that the characters aren’t developed; Autobiography comes in handy for this too, giving the backstory with Geryon set up as the introspective, arty teenager and Herakles the restless adventurer.  Wife of Brain’s role as (Greek) chorus had a surprisingly big, clarifying impact on reactions.     

We discussed which of the long narrow columns could stand on their own and agreed on the one starting ‘Time passes’, all of which you can read here.  Hard to choose an extract; it ends:

                  Time  for  the
man   at   the   bus   stop
standing on one leg to tie
his  shoe.    Time   taking
Night  by  the  hand   and
trotting off down the road.
Time passes oh boy. Time
got the jump on me yes it

I read both the Reds in parallel, moving between them; can’t remember when I was last so excited by a book, or rather two.  There is so much more to say about them.  The excitements include language, form, intelligence both intellectual and emotional, worldly wisdom and other-worldly, myth and modernity.  And the gaps: part of the thrill is exercising the imagination to supply what’s been left out.  Being a papyrologist.


  1. Dear Fiona

    It sounds fascinating. I have long been intrigued by the great Greek poet Sappho. Only a few fragments of her work survive yet her immortality is assured. I would settle for something similar.

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. You may have to wait a while for that, Simon, unless you already write in a language that won't be around in a few thousand years, and have already started removing your poems from circulation, cutting them into little bits and burying them. A

    2. Dear Alfie

      An astute and fair point!

      Best wishes from Simon