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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564

Author: Anne Carson (b. 1950)

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 192 pp.

Type of work: Novel, poetry

Red Doc>, the sequel to Anne Carson's acclaimed Autobiography of Red, revisits the former lovers Geryon and Heracles, two mythological characters transported into a modern world as lyrically beautiful...

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Author: Anne Carson (b. 1950)

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 192 pp.

Type of work: Novel, poetry

Red Doc>, the sequel to Anne Carson's acclaimed Autobiography of Red, revisits the former lovers Geryon and Heracles, two mythological characters transported into a modern world as lyrically beautiful as it is sorrowful.

Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red (1998) is a classic of contemporary poetry. The book retells the story of the demon Geryon and the hero Heracles from Greek mythology, reinterpreting the violence of Heracles slaughtering the herdsman Geryon by casting the two characters as young, modern-day lovers. With its heavy reliance on classical mythology and its experiments with form and voice, the book has found a popular and enduring audience among readers.

Published fifteen years later, Red Doc> returns again to Carson's reimagined Geryon and Heracles, now known respectively as G and Sad. G is still prone to ennui and periods of withdrawal and insightfulness, spending his days tending to his herd of beloved musk oxen and visiting with his mother. He also has a new friend in Ida, an older artist and free spirit whose tendency toward uninhibited action makes her a complement to G. When Sad returns to G's life after a long absence, the reader learns that he has had an even rougher go of the past years. A veteran of the Iraq war, he suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress and has developed a conflicted relationship with psychiatric drugs in the wake of his experience at war.

Like most of Carson's work, the narrative is slight and suggestive. The text is drawn forward not by twists in plot but by the beauty of Carson's language. It is written most often in thin stanzas, centered through each page and unconventionally punctuated—stylistic choices that give the work a steady and lyric rhythm. The story unfolds in the loose space of a road trip. G, his former lover, and his new friend all take off across an otherworldly landscape of massive glaciers, a contrast to the volcanoes that dominated Autobiography of Red. As G flies with creatures called ice bats, the others arrive at a facility that is both automobile garage and mental health center. There, a war veteran with the prophetic affliction of always seeing five seconds into the future joins their team. Following a series of surreal actions— including Ida attempting to rob a laundry and G's prized musk ox Io leaping off a mountain to reach him—the story settles on the deathbed of G's mother, where she and G partake in mundane conversation as Ida and Sad play witness to G's loss.

If the plot sounds confusing, that is because it is. Carson works more by insinuation than by action, with voices shifting from line to line. The narrative, which moves from association to associfation, requires significant attention from the reader. This is not, however, an arbitrary choice, or experimentation for experimentation's sake. Instead, Carson's work provides a unique reading experience. At its core, Red Doc> is the story of G's transition from an endearing and fraught teenager into a fully formed adult. While he remains the same person, he has been worn down by the world. His reconnection with Sad, for instance, is not one of passion and physical pleasure but instead a sputtering out. The two attempt to rekindle their physical romance to no avail. Instead, they accept their new role as comrades in each other's losses, serving as witnesses to their shared past and present. Stylistically, while the lines of Autobiography of Red spill across the page with frantic energy, the lines of Red Doc> move along in a melancholy march, contained at the page's center. In this mode, the comically supernatural events of the falling musk ox and the flying ice bats barely register as plot points. These events seem distant to G even as he experiences them, as though his own ability to take in pleasure and spontaneity has dwindled over time, replaced with a persistent malaise.

This open space around the narrative elements serves as the most fertile ground for Carson's writing. It is here that she playfully and smartly inserts a number of essayistic asides. G, for instance, spends a good portion of time thinking about the writers Marcel Proust (1871–1922) and Daniil Kharms (1905–42). Proust's writing makes much of the material of memory—a major thematic concern of Red Doc>. In obsessing over Proust's novels, G is also able to obsess over his own memories and the losses that come with the passage of time. Kharms, on the other hand, was a writer of the surreal, and as G carries around the Russian poet's selected writings, his frustration with the text mirrors his frustration with his own life, made unreal both by its bizarre events and by the illogic of great loss.

Carson also makes use of a similarly esoteric technique, that of the "Wife of Brain." A chorus like one would find in ancient Greek literature, the Wife of Brain regularly interrupts the main flow of text to offer commentary. Formatted differently—still centered on the page, but with lines running at varying lengths—these sections speak as often to the metaphoric concerns of the text as to the actual characters. One, for instance, moves from noting that "prose / is a house poetry a man in flames running / quite fast through it" to a narrative description of Ida appearing on a television talk show. The presence of this figure accomplishes several important things for the book, not least of which is emphasizing the divide between the interior space of the mind (the space where G most often occupies himself) and the surreal world outside the self. The Wife of Brain also offers readers a teasingly false promise, suggesting that they are going to see inside the deeper parts of G's thought processes. However, it instead directs the reader's attention back out into the world, to a plot line with its own confusing twists.

For readers craving a more conventional story line or easier plot access, all of Carson's play with form and language comes to a poignant and simple conclusion at the end of the road trip. G's mother, a constant figure from the start of Autobiography of Red onward, is on her deathbed. This death comes somewhat as a surprise, the eventful and heavily imagistic action of the road trip having occupied most of the text. The news of her demise arrives with little forewarning. The scenes of death itself, however, are rendered with a sort of sharp blandness. Carson writes, "NOT A CASUAL / solitude. He and she. / Oxygen machine is wheeled in and hooked up." G plucks gray chin hairs from his mother's face while he sits in relative silence beside her. Eventually, she takes her last breath. Ida and Sad go out for dinner, leaving G with some needed privacy as he sorts through her photos, weeps, and listens to the rain. In contrast to all that has come before, these moments of mourning would seem almost trite were they not rendered in such careful and striking language. After the raucousness of the road trip and the deep thinking that had consumed G's actions, the still solitude that follows death brings with it a completely new sense of the surreal. The most conventional and universal event of life—the death of a loved one—becomes a strange ending point for an otherwise winding narrative.

Anne Carson is a poet, essayist, translator, and classicist who has won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. Among her many books in diverse genres are Autobiography of Red (1998) and The Beauty of the Husband (2001).

Disorienting passages—such as the one describing the death of G's mother—define Red Doc>. Carson is not the kind of writer who allows her readers to move through the text in any predictable or expected way. She does not allow her characters to keep the same names, does not make evident who is speaking at any given moment, and does not allow one narrative event to lead logically into the next. Likewise, she ignores the borders of genre, using this novel, written in poetic verse, as a vehicle for erudite literary critical thinking on Proust. The question remains of how she manages to accomplish this bizarre form of writing (as well as what, exactly, is accomplished), but that question is one of the many pleasures of this book. For readers who are comfortable accepting the world of Red Doc> on its own terms, experiencing the joy of the language and the delicately summoned permeation of loss, the story of G as he ages is as rewarding as it is challenging. The sad and winged sprite from Autobiography of Red, one of the most enduring and beloved figures in contemporary literature, is made even more mysterious and more captivating by the passage of poetic time.

Review Sources

  • Carey, Barbara. Rev. of Red Doc>, by Anne Carson. Toronto Star. Star Media Group, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2013
  • Crown, Sarah. Rev. of Red Doc>, by Anne Carson. Guardian. Guardian Media Group, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2013
  • Eder, Richard. Rev. of Red Doc>, by Anne Carson. Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 17 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.
  • Fried, Daisy. "Other Labyrinths." Rev. of Red Doc>, by Anne Carson. New York Times. New York Times, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.
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