Autobiography of Red

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1648

In the brief period between the publication of Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995) and the milestone book Glass, Irony, and God, with its centerpiece “The Glass Essay” (1995), Anne Carson reached an uncommon level of critical appreciation. With this reputation in tow, each succeeding new work will be held up to high expectations, with comparisons to other writers (such as Ann Lauterbach, Medbh McGuckian, and Henri Michaux) as well as backward glances to her own earlier efforts. This position forces artists to push the boundaries of past glories; to move up from such a precarious perch, creative minds must use the themes and techniques that built their reputations while expanding their scope and substance.

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If such comparisons within a fairly young canon cannot be avoided, it is helpful to trace the steps that led up to a new artistic contribution to that canon. Throughout Plainwater and Glass, Irony, and God, Carson’s themes and techniques merged her classical scholarship and innovative experiments with structure. This far-reaching fusion gave her the distinctive voice of individuality steeped in academia and deeply fought personal soul seeking. Poems such as “The Glass Essay” reached and challenged readers on a variety of levels, because Carson successfully interwove three elements: personal reflections on identity, references to literary influences, and visions of the nature of poetry. Her use of visuals in “The Glass Essay” clearly prefigured similar techniques in Autobiography of Red, in which much of her style is based on line structure and layout for the eye while using colors, light, and dark juxtapositions as her scaffolding for images and metaphors.

This complexity has made her work as interesting to the poetic technician as to the reader, and such virtuosity has led to high praise in critical commentaries. But Carson’s sometimes top- heavy gamesmanship and use of obscure, esoteric allusions have proved distracting and defeating, notably when she is not writing from her personal experience. These faults will trouble some readers of Autobiography of Red, as they troubled readers of Carson’s previous four books.

This fifth exercise in the avant-garde is challenging, inviting comparisons with two of her cited mentors, Homer and Gertrude Stein. From Homer, Carson takes a mythos of personalities and reworks ancient narratives into a postmodern parable. From Stein, she derives a playful wordplay, a deceptively simple tone that helps make her complexity readable.

Carson is far more than a synthesizer of influences. More important, she is a synthesizer of techniques, perhaps the most interesting creator of new images in the modern poetic scene, and a pioneer in the usage of white space on the printed page.

Autobiography of Red is not an autobiography of her protagonist, Geryon, the mythological winged monster who lives in a red world of red shadows tending red cattle trapped “in a bad apple.” Nor is she retelling the story of Geryon as originally spun by Greek poet Stesichorus, whose epic had the red monster killed by Herakles in the fulfillment of one of his mythological labors. Rather, Geryon lives in a modern world, is molested as a child, and is betrayed in a love affair with Herakles. Layered onto this plot diversion, echoing “The Glass Essay,” the narrative is partially about the writing of Geryon’s autobiography of artistic discovery. At its deepest level, the book is about the search for understandable meaning in a world of words, words so complex and ambiguous that Geryon must find expression and focus without them. Geryon’s search for this discovery, as in all epics, forces him to move from childhood to mature uncertainty, from one confusion to another. This trope parallels the search for identity in “The Glass Essay”; again, it is a masterful weaving of major ideas appropriate to Carson’s newly expanded novel-length scope.

At the beginning of the poetic fragments and sequences, Carson poses a long series of either/or riddles that open up into a tapestry of interrelated images. Part of Geryon’s quest is to find the meanings of words, as he first hopes to nail awareness into facts, times, and information. However, this hope leads to skepticism. Meanings for Geryon are blurred when the babysitter appropriates words that belong to the mother and when the insane write in political candidates on ballots. Resolutions are beyond words, as when death is the state “where one cannot speak” and reality “is a sound to be tuned in to.” When Geryon turns to photography, he “relinquished speech,” not answering questions while seeking to focus his lens. In the “IV Tuesday” passage, the missing side of a phone conversation is indicated by a series of ellipses, leaving the reader to fill in the omitted thoughts:

Maria? It’s me can you talk? What did he say?
. . .
Just like that?
. . .
Bastard
. . .
That’s not freedom it’s indifference
. . .
Some kind of attic
. . .
I’d throw the bum out

Again employing visual metaphors, Carson has Geryon grow from childhood to college student to worker. He learns the coldness of words. When he works with government documents in a basement, he is instructed to “turn off the lights when not in use.” He learns that social expectations are reflected in his words, as when his mother wants to know if his school compositions have happy endings. This image merges with his realizations when he turns from words to photographs, and his mother reminds him to use the lens cap when not in use. To become an artist, to learn “How does distance look?” Geryon first focuses his lens on lips looking for “intelligent words” from his mother’s throat. However, his images become visually oriented—a nonworking mind is a “defective light projector,” but he is in the dark without “his reading light.” He makes a project of finding the sounds of colors and discovers that postcards combine words with pictures. With this synthesis Geryon comes to awareness, with poetic images such as “dancing is meaning placed on motion.” “The Glass Essay” is evoked for its use of paintings of nudes that demonstrate different states of female consciousness. As in “The Glass Essay,” the imagery is reinforced with word spacing and line length, alternating expansions and contractions of lines to indicate the opening and narrowing of awareness.

This set of images is juxtaposed by repeated references to smoke, ash, lava, and volcanoes, leading to another wide variety of possible interpretations. Linking this set of motifs with her main themes, Carson writes that “the words floated by like ash,” and the world of technology is seen through buses exhaling smoke. Most characters smoke cigarettes, and the scientific, geological passages on volcanoes give way to sexual allusions and surreal photographs of a circus freak called “The Lava Man.” Carson’s climactic moment occurs when Geryon makes a pilgrimage to the Andes and a volcano. Atop the volcano, Geryon’s dormant wings open under the eye of the camera and over the eye of the volcano, resulting in final self- realization. The autobiography proper closes with Geryon, Herakles, and Ancash, “neighbors of fire,” immortalized as they stand by a “volcano in a wall.”

This interplay makes Autobiography of Red the sort of text teachers are keen on explicating in the classroom. However, Carson’s use of nonmetrical prose and lines are more poetic for the eye than the ear and will continue to annoy readers who want easy definitions of genres with which to label their artists. Like William Vollmann, Carson’s mirror opposite in his attention to meter in prose rather than traditional line structure, Carson is as interesting for her style as for her substance. Still, it is easy to argue that her classicism tends to make this work more appropriate for readers knowledgeable about classical allusions and literary context that are beyond most readers’ backgrounds. Many readers without graduate degrees in literature may find the work difficult to grasp, particularly if they attempt to integrate the introductory material and appendices into their understanding of the main text.

Furthermore, top heavy insertions of scientific data both slow the pace and seem metrically out of place, and her whimsical footnotes and appendices on the legend of Stesichorus’s blinding by Helen of Troy are of little help in illuminating her story. Her bogus “Interview” with Stesichorus provides clues to her intentions, discussing “concealment drama” that both hides information with an aesthetic will toward blindness while the playwright sees for all humanity. In this section, in which the playwright seems to speak with Carson’s own voice, the updated Greek writer indicates that the artist is responsible for humanity’s visibility. The artist, Carson says, is unable to blink, wishing to forget the disagreeable past. Geography and character are linked without explanation, and the final riddle claims no distinction between a guinea pig and a volcano. Such enigmas erode any interpretations of the work readers may have arrived at by the end of the main text, forcing them to rethink their reactions to the book. This new level of complexity is stimulating but perhaps dissatisfying for readers seeking tangible aphorisms to hang meaning on.

In the main, Carson is not as remote as Ezra Pound in his use of world culture, but nonacademic readers may be unhappily distracted by her esoteric allusions. However, the many layers and poetic explorations of Autobiography of Red should appeal to a wide range of readers. Like “The Glass Essay,” Carson’s new work will be examined from several perspectives and will likely remain of literary interest for some time to come.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, April, 1998, p. 1294.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 88.

Los Angeles Times. May 8, 1998, p. E4.

The Nation. CCLXVI, June 1, 1998, p. 32.

The New Republic. CCXVIII, May 18, 1998, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, November 9, 1998, p. 57.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 3, 1998, p. 23.

Poetry. CLXXIII, December, 1998, p. 181.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 30, 1998, p. 70.

Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 233.

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