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Tucson Weekly Seeing Red

Anne Carson's Classical Return To The Monster Tale Comprises Her Best Work Yet.

By Richard Siken

JUNE 29, 1998: 

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson (Knopf). Cloth, $23.

SO MAYBE DESIRE is a monster. I think you know what I mean. Or maybe, more simply, desire makes one monstrous. Vampires, werewolves, King Kong, Mr. Hyde, the witch with the house of gingerbread--they all want something; they're hungry. There's a lot to be said for the horrific or grotesque approach. A little distance, a little difference--wings, fangs, bolts in the neck--anything that takes what we find difficult or uncomfortable in ourselves and makes it Other will allow us to more readily listen to a story without getting so defensive.

These days, the monstrous and other-worldly are most commonly found in comic books or on the big screen rather than in serious literature. But this was not always the case. From Gilgamesh on into the early 20th century, monsters, gods and superheroes populated the literary landscape. Blame Freud, blame Japanimation, blame whoever you want--these days monsters and superheroes are genre. And yet, while most serious modern literature continues to put forward modern (human) heroes battling personal (psychological) demons, along comes Anne Carson's surprising new book where the monster actually is a monster. And it's a love story. A tender little love story, with a couple of dirty parts.

Set in the present day, Autobiography of Red recasts the Greek legend of Geryon, the red, winged monster that Herakles killed during his tenth labor. Names, wings, and some mythical details remain; only this time, when Geryon meets Herakles in the bus depot, the sparks that fly are of a different kind. And this time the hero is the monster: The whole shebang is told from Geryon's point of view.

Carson is a classicist, so it's understandable that she takes her monsters and superhumans seriously; they are, of course, the meat and potatoes of Greek myth. But one of the things that's so unsettling here is the fact that this monster is so self-aware and, well, so sensitive. Geryon's literal monstrousness is understated, almost taken for granted (he does have wings, after all), while his metaphoric monstrousness, his desire, remains the focus of the story.

He's a little red monster. He goes to school. He falls in love. He takes pictures with his camera. But these are only the facts. Carson is interested in something much deeper here: emotional truth. And she nails it every time. The book boasts exotic locations in South America, volcanoes, superhuman heroes that can fly; but it's Geryon's concentrated attention to who he is in relation to the world, his continued effort to compile his autobiography--a document of fascination and discovery--that comprise the bulk of the text.

This is perhaps the most striking aspect of Carson's work: the ability to condense the parts of the story that everyone knows, and zero in on the inside parts--the slippery, difficult, meaty parts that lesser writers avoid or omit. Like why this sweet, charming, tender-hearted little boy, who's a mixture of Holden Caufield and Puff the Magic Dragon, believes he's not just different, but a monster. It's not that Carson glosses over the narrative, it's just that beneath the seeming simplicity of her lines something intense is happening. Carson's insight makes the book shimmer with what can only be described as secret knowledge.

And, of course, the whole thing's a poem. An epic poem in 47 parts, in the tradition of Homer. (She is a classicist, after all.) Roughly based on the remaining fragments of an ancient poem by the poet Stesichoros (circa 630 B.C.), Carson's language retains some of the stark, clipped meter of fragmented, translated Greek, yet manages to open into a richer, more sensuous lyric.

Those already familiar with Carson's other books will find this her greatest achievement yet. Funny, poignant, musical and tender, this 150-page novel in verse has afforded her a landscape large enough to show the true range of her voice and gifts.

Framed by fragments of Stesichoros' poem and an invented interview with the Greek poet about his vision (he may have been blinded by Helen of Troy), Autobiography of Red manages to bridge the gap between modernity and classicism, poetry and prose, in a dazzling, moving journey into the soul of a little red monster.

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