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The Boston Phoenix It's Not Easy Being Red

In Anne Carson's verse novel, a colorful winged monster from Greek mythology stands in for the sensitive misfit in all of us

By Mark Halliday

JUNE 29, 1998: 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, by Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf, 160 pages, $23.

What if a Canadian professor of classics turned out to be a greater poet than any living American? The notion has an appeal, if you're feeling sick of blurby America; and when I read Anne Carson's 38-page poem The poem combines intelligence and passion in ways reminiscent of the long poems of Frank Bidart, or Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Autobiography of Red, by contrast, is too narrow and, finally, too simple to confirm Carson's greatness. Nevertheless, it is a memorably passionate work by a bravely original writer.

Carson's "novel in verse" tells the story of Geryon, an extremely sensitive and precocious young man, from boyhood to age 22. Geryon lives on an unspecified island with his affectionate but ineffectual mother, his inattentive, athletic father, and his oppressive older brother. Realistic contemporary details establish the time as the present, but there is also a matter-of-factly mythic dimension to the story. Geryon, who consciously identifies with the Geryon of Greek mythology (a monster slain by Herakles), has a completely red body, with wings growing from his back -- like the monster. His wings are real, not merely psychological (on Geryon's first day at school, his mother "neatened his little red wings and pushed him/out the door"), yet they play no role in the plot until the end, and even then their function is oblique and unconvincing. The wings serve mainly to remind us of the radical strangeness of Geryon among other people: he becomes a metaphor for the deeply sensitive self, the self who will always endure a sense of profoundly embarrassed difference from others.

Geryon survives sexual abuse at the hands of his brother. Then, at the age of 14, he meets a charismatic boy named Herakles, who is 16. Infatuation is instantaneous: "it was one of those moments/that is the opposite of blindness./The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice." Geryon's love for Herakles is soon requited sexually, though Herakles cannot match the soul-tearing totality of Geryon's adoration. Against his mother's wishes, Geryon accompanies Herakles to his hometown of Hades ("at the other end of the island about four hours by car"), where they visit the local volcano. (Carson is fascinated by volcanoes -- by their vast molten intensity hidden beneath outward calm, waiting for expression that will be frenzied, destructive, and beautiful.) Then Geryon returns home, knowing he can't rely on Herakles's love; Herakles has in fact uttered the inevitable "we'll always be friends."

The next thing we know, Geryon is 22 and has decided to fly to Buenos Aires -- apparently because Herakles is there, though when they meet it happens by chance. Geryon yearns for him as before, but Herakles has a new lover. The drama of desire and jealousy produces charged moments, yet the ending is anticlimactic; the three young men visit a volcano in Peru, and Geryon has yet another opportunity to ponder the infinity of lava-like passion in finite hearts, but by this time he knows that his love for Herakles has burned out.

Carson's writing is willfully whimsical and delightedly peculiar. While some images are garishly symbolic (the wings; the volcanoes; Geryon's camera, which captures "the flashes in which a man possesses himself"), many others seem casually tossed in. Carson evokes Buenos Aires and Lima vividly, for example, but never convinces us that Autobiography of Red especially needed to unfold in those two cities.

The versification also has an arbitrary quality. Each section of the narrative moves down the page in alternating long and short lines, but no regular meter is observed, and most of the line breaks are not interesting as such. However, the lineation does help us feel the fierce loadedness of Carson's style.

. . . He saw the doorway
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world somewhere Herakles laughing drinking getting
into a car and Geryon's
whole body formed one arch of a cry -- upcast to that custom, the human custom
of wrong love.

This is verse that achieves narrative momentum often -- yet the story is so strangely simple, despite the oddities of detail, that Autobiography of Red ends up feeling like a lyric poem fanatically extended. This is because Carson is so devoted to the emotional fluctuations of her protagonist; one feels that her favorite moments are those when Geryon broods in beautifully tortured solitude.

Carson is a flaming romantic and proud of it. She experiences the world as a realm where passions far exceed opportunities for expression or fulfillment but remain always the most important realities. She is startlingly unembarrassed by the idea that this romanticism is essentially adolescent. "SPIRIT RULES SECRETLY ALONE THE BODY ACHIEVES NOTHING/is something you know/instinctively at fourteen and can still remember even with hell in your head/at sixteen." Though Geryon does experience sexual love, the hero he reminds me of most is the virginal, intolerably sensitive Holden Caulfield.

The purple (or red, as Carson prefers) romanticism is thinly camouflaged by a scholarly framework that is less crucial than it seems at first. Carson the classics professor begins her book with a brief homage to the ancient poet Stesichoros, who wrote a long poem about Geryon, of which only fragments survive; Carson's verse novel can be taken as an effort to imagine the poem Stesichoros might have written if his Geryon lived now.

But the references to Stesichoros seem, more than anything, like Carson's ambivalent gestures toward concealing the intensely personal nature of her tale. The same goes for the homosexuality of the main characters. Nothing in the plot depends on the lovers' being homosexual rather than heterosexual. Instead, homosexuality seems to be serving Carson as a metaphor for the queerness of any deep spirit in the material world. Though we are told that Geryon is writing his autobiography, it's hard not to feel that Carson has herself in mind.


Mark Halliday directs the creative writing program at Ohio University.


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