Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, February 2013
When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own elegy for a brother—illustrated with collages, photographs, and scraps of letters. The pages folded concertina-style into a gray box, its shape suggesting the self-enclosure of grief and the cold slab of a headstone. In 2012, Carson updated Sophocles’s Antigone, another story of a sister grieving the death of her brother, in Antigonick, a hand-lettered translation with playful drawings and enough creative license to include references to Virginia Woolf and Hegel. Even if one of her books looks conventional, trust that hidden architecture undergirds the story. In her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (1998), Carson retold the myth of Herakles and his tenth labor: slaying the red, winged monster Geryon and stealing his oxen. She made the two men lovers and narrated their romance in a nonchronological hodgepodge of styles—the academic essay, the interview—the chapters formally different and discrete as rooms.
In her new book, Red Doc>, Carson picks up the story of Geryon again, fashioning from it yet another curious object. The sentences are squeezed into a tight column, about an inch and a half long. Scenes are sequential and cut occasionally to witchy pronouncements from a Greek chorus who call themselves the Wife of Brain. Surrounded by acres of white space, the text looks like tracks in snow.
When we left Geryon in Autobiography, he was in Buenos Aires, the unhappy party in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles’s new lover. At the beginning of Red Doc>, he’s older, still unlucky, still tending his animals and losing his looks. “Am I / turning into one of those / old guys in a ponytail and / wings he thinks sadly.” He’s spent the last seven years reading À la recherche du temps perdu.(“Reading it every day,” he tells his mother, “was like having / an extra unconscious.”) Fortuitously, he’s shaken out of his stupor and self-pity by the reappearance of his old love, now a war veteran who calls himself Sad. They meet a delightfully deranged artist named Ida, and embark on a desultory journey over a glacier, into a body shop–cum–psychiatric clinic. They pick up Hermes—in Greek mythology the cunning messenger of the gods—as a hitchhiker. They sleep with each other and squabble and leave Geryon at his mother’s deathbed. It’s Alice in Wonderland without the philosophy, just the nonsense and surreal size play: “Ice bats . . . the size of toasters” and “crows as big as barns / rave overhead.”
In Carson’s work, philosophy and literary criticism (or even their parodies) have functioned as a trellis around which scenes are strung. Formal structures and especially the fragment allow her to pose questions with and within her work, to insinuate and tease, and she’s at her best in the interrogative mood, as in her book The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001). Because Red Doc> lacks this scaffolding, her players skitter in constant and confused motion. This wouldn’t matter so much if the story were strong enough to hold them, if the characters were, on some level, enacting psychological or philosophical questions. But Red Doc> is only superficially interested in narrative. It’s a long, lovely line to nowhere, a beautiful surface. The language doesn’t exist to take us inside the characters; it’s just so many daubs of paint, utterly its own end.