With the publication of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse in 1998, Anne Carson became something of a cult figure.
Carson employed the familiar trope of taking a story out of Greek lore and making it contemporary. But Autobiography of Red is neither epic like James Joyce's Ulysses nor archaic like Mary Shelley's retelling of "The Modern Prometheus" in Frankenstein.
Carson uses the obscure story of Herakles' killing of Geryon, a red-winged creature who watches over a herd, to explore why we are cursed with "the human custom of wrong love." What little we know of the original tale survives in fragments attributed to Stesichoros, who lived, Carson tells us with tongue planted firmly in cheek, in the time between Homer and Gertrude Stein.
In Carson's version, Geryon is an inordinately sensitive young man who can "feel his eyes leaning out of his skull on their little connectors." Abused by his brother and shunned by his mother, when Geryon comes of age, he trades the domestic nightmare of his childhood home for the rough companionship of Herakles, who proves to be even more indifferent to Geryon's affection than his mother. Red's "autobiography" documents their on-and-off romance and Geryon's burgeoning relationship to art.
Geryon is a hugely sympathetic character—a wounded bird who has to be coaxed from the nest he's built for himself. He's also a monster: His skin is red, and he possesses enormous wings that he keeps hidden underneath his clothing. Geryon is both a modern figure and a mythological creature in the same way that Carson's book is both a novel and a poem.
If an artist is someone who makes the old new and the familiar unfamiliar, then Carson certainly qualifies. The fact that she's an expert in mythology and teaches ancient Greek for a living is both the key to her work and beside the point, because her concerns are contemporary and her language fresh.
"A church bell rang across the page and the hour of six P.M. flowed through the hotel like a wave. Lamps snapped on and white bedspreads sprang forward, water rushed in the walls, the elevator crashed like a mastodon within its hollow cage."
All you really need to know is that Carson writes whatever the hell she wants. Her stories, structure and language are unique, which probably says something about our culture's ambivalent attitude toward history and its chroniclers.
Earlier this year, and 15 years after the publication of Autobiography of Red, Carson released a sequel of sorts called Red Doc>. The front flap, typically reserved for teasers from the publisher's marketing department and blurbs from peers, contains a 50-word statement from the author in which she describes her motives.
"Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles. Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life. Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style with changed names."
Carson isn't kidding around. Red Doc> bears little resemblance to its forbear. Even the way the words are assembled on the page is unusual: column after column of justified type that guides the eye down the page.
Geryon, now older and more confident, is recognizable as G, and Herakles has been transformed into The Great Sad as a result of his participation in a war that tried to teach him how to accept the unacceptable—with mixed results.
Red Doc> is a book in which interesting things happen but the events aren't connected in a linear fashion. G befriends bats. Sad gets hospitalized. Cows hallucinate and fly. It's all funneled into remarkable slivers of language that dazzle.
"Out of black nothing into perfect expectancy—flying has always given him this sensation of hope—like glimpsing a lake through trees or that first steep velvet moment the opera curtain parts."
Carson is a master of the multiple. There are always several things going on at once. The mythological markers aren't always visible, but they're there. Her erudition explains her vision, but it's her passion that engulfs the reader.
While neither book can be called conventional, it's not necessary to read Autobiography of Red before Red Doc>. I'm not even sure if it's advisable to read Red Doc> in sequence. There are gaps in the story line and character development that don't feel like they're missing so much as lost. It's as if Carson penned a complete manuscript and left only jumbled fragments behind.
Leave it to Carson to turn her readers into modern-day archaeologists, puzzling over the broken pieces of a culture that we will never understand.