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Prose

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse
Anne Carson
Knopf, $23


by Elizabeth Macklin

Herakles (or Hercules, or Heracles, depending on the movie, TV series, comic book, or poem) was, even before his labors, much more famous than the king who set them. He's certainly better known than his adversary in Labor 10, the winged red monster Geryon (pronounced Ger'ion or Je'rion), whom Hera-kles killed so as to steal his cattle. The Canadian poet Anne Carson's introduction to Autobiography of Red tells us that Stesichoros was probably the first writer in history ever to recount the episode of Herakles and Geryon "from Geryon's own experience"--

We see his red boy's life and his little dog. A scene of wild appeal from his mother, which breaks off. Interspersed shots of Herakles approaching over the sea. . . . The moment when everything goes suddenly slow and Herakles' arrow divides Geryon's skull. We see Herakles kill the little dog with His famous club

--and the book's afterword is an invented interview with Stesichoros:
`I: How about your little hero Geryon
S: Exactly it is red that I like and there is a link between geology and character. . . .
S: So glad you didn't ask about the little red dog
I: Next time

Carson is a classicist (at McGill and Berkeley), but in her 1995 collections Glass, Irony and God and Plainwater: Essays and Poetry it was perfectly clear that her bent was toward a deadpan, deceptive but undeceiving humor: "I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime." The scholarly apparatus of her new book is in fact a wickedly parodistic parallel universe to the novel inside it--a time-machine recasting, with the tart, dry humor of one of Borges's scholarly-fantastic inventions. Thus the introduction ("Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?") is followed in the front matter by "Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros" and three Appendices (on the blinding of the Greek poet Stesichoros by Helen) in the best mock-academic tone.

Although it's half mind game, a whirring puzzle, Autobiography of Red is at its center dead-serious. In 47 short chapters, the material between the apparatus ("Autobiography of Red: A Romance") is Carson's own tale of Geryon. Stesichoros' original winged red monster could not have been more powerless against Hera-kles than Carson's is. Or as empathic: in "Red: A Romance," no one gets killed with arrows or a club, but the violence is no less effective; it's just not epic, except perhaps in its impact on Geryon.

Red'sone- to seven-page chapters are in alternating long and short lines, short lines reading at first like reconsiderings of the long-afterthoughts, emendations. The form soon comes to seem almost a supplementary punctuation, an accurate respiration for the semi-skeptical tone, sometimes for emphasis. Although rhymeless, the chapters are narrative lyrics, with their own titles: "Ideas," "Sex Question," "Hades," "Pair."

As Chapter 1 ("Justice") begins, Geryon is five, being shepherded to kindergarten by his irritable older brother. The school is a long brick building on a red dirt road; its kindergarten wing is hedged in "highbush cranberry." "Children poured around him." You can't miss Geryon's redness and his wingedness, though you often forget them for pages. He doesn't forget. He's terrified: "Just take me once more I'll get it this time. . . . Stupid, said Geryon's brother / and left him. / Geryon had no doubt the word stupid was correct." Yet he's not incapable of finding solutions.

Early in Chapter 2 ("Each"), Geryon asks his mother what "each" means and she tells him, "Each means like you and your brother each have your own room." Geryon is bedazzled by the salvation of "each": "He spelled it at school on the blackboard (perfectly) with a piece of red silk chalk." Ten lines down, however, his "each" is pulled out from under him; before chapter's end, the "Shunk shunk ping ping ping ping ping ping ping ping ping" from the bottom bunk in the room he and his brother now share has led--through "Come on Geryon. / No. / You owe me. / No" and "Voyaging into the rotten ruby of the night"--to an "economy" of sex for cat's-eye marbles. In a 1986 scholarly study, Eros the Bittersweet (recently reissued by Dalkey Archives), Carson described and analyzed the force fields of eros in ancient Greek writing; desire was something with the immediacy of a violence, unsurprisingly a god. These scenes in Red aren't "rape" or "incest"; assaultive as it is, what's happening here is much more "normal," because, for Geryon, it's as inescapable as a god.

It's at this point that Geryon begins his autobiography:

In this work Geryon set down all inside things
particularly his own heroism
and early death much to the despair of the community. He coolly omitted
all outside things.
Over time, Geryon becomes resourceful; he keeps his own counsel (he becomes Red, in a way--hard to think of him as Geryon). He knows--has written in his autobiography, in fact--the story of Herakles' killing him long before they meet. "Where does he get his ideas, said the teacher. It was Parent-Teacher Day at school. . . . Does he ever write anything with a happy ending?" his mother asks.
Proceeding to the back of the classroom he sat at his usual desk and took out a pencil.

New Ending:
All over the world the beautiful red breezes
went on blowing hand
in hand
.

None of this, of course, is taking place anywhere near the Mediterranean Red Place of Stesichoros. "Geryon lived on an island in the Atlantic," his autobiographer writes, although elsewhere the place can sound Canadian. "Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon's father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone." It's at 3 a.m. in a bus depot that Geryon meets Herakles, in Chapter 7 ("Change"), which begins: "Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence."

As 16-year-old Herakles steps off the bus from New Mexico, "The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice" and from that moment, in 14-year-old Geryon's mind, they were "two superior eels / at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics." Throughout Red, characters and dialogue are near-instantly recognizable. "Sex is a way of getting to know someone," Herakles says to Geryon. And, stopping Geryon's heart for a moment early on, "I guess I'm someone who will never be satisfied." The "Joy to the World" they sing together--they practice--could only be 3 Dog Night's.

In Red, Herakles and Geryon are lovers, and of the most uncontrollable, pre- epidemic kind. With the onset of Herakles, the novel turns picaresque: After four chapters on the island together ("I hear he doesn't go to school, is he older?" Red's mother asks), Herakles takes Red to Hades, where Herakles' grandmother lives (they stay at her house). Then, when Herakles has sent him away ("Think you should be getting back?"), Red ends up back on the island briefly, devastated; then contemplative in Buenos Aires (later, by purest chance, with Herakles again and his new lover), in Lima, and finally in the Quechua Andes above the capital. The disorientation of being the only winged red creature at school flies smoothly into the disorientations of travel. Herakles in South America is a beach-bum-oblivious American tourist. Geryon watches him bend situations with his bare hands, and eros moves toward different confusions.

The point of Autobiography of Red is in how it plays itself out. In Eros the Bittersweet, Carson used the word "triangulate" for what Eros does, and a downside was inherent in the Greeks' idea: the god was no Hallmark cupid but blinding, dazzling; omnipotential trouble. Carson in earlier poems (or "essays"--as in essais) addressed this between a man and a woman: once in the irascible and hilarious "Just for the Thrill," with its extended, sub-marital camping trip across America; once in "The Glass Essay," amid a Cathy-and-Heathcliff epic. In Red, between two men (or two offspring of gods) the problematic of eros in our erotic culture--the submissions and powers, coercions--is nearly as clear as it can get. Because of the levelled playing field of gender, Red can ask, "Does a monster have an alternative?"

Carson is still clearer, and still more decisive, in a new poem that appeared in Seneca Review last fall: 31 pages titled "Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve." It's a novella in verse, posing the questions from Hera-kles' side: Eros triangulates on two women--more precisely, on a classics professor and a female student. Like Red, "Irony Is Not Enough" is a suspense story; it wouldn't do to spoil the ending.

In the "Interview" facing Red's last chapter ("The Flashes in Which a Man Possesses Himself"), both Stesichoros and Carson's interviewer half-avoid discussing the story. Here it's a triumph that neither so much as mentions Herakles.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review



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