Red Doc>  by  Anne Carson    Knopf (March 2013)  Reviewed by  Madeleine LaRue    

Red Doc>
by Anne Carson
Knopf (March 2013)

Reviewed by Madeleine LaRue


According to the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros, who may or may not have been blind, Geryon was a red, winged monster who lived on an island with his herd of red cattle. One day the hero Herakles came, killed Geryon, and took his cattle. Then the centuries ate away at Stesichoros’ manuscript until only fragments were left.  In 1998, Anne Carson took these fragments and fashioned them into Autobiography of Red, chronicling Geryon’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in another red world. In Carson’s version, the monster and murderer are teenage lovers; they meet in “one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness” when Herakles steps off the bus.

After they separate, Herakles leaves the island and Geryon returns to his quieter passions of reading, writing, and photography. On a trip to South America several years later, he finds himself unexpectedly reunited with Herakles. The two of them visit a series of active volcanoes, and Geryon may or may not jump (or fly) into the last of them.

Because Autobiography of Red, like its author, belongs to the mythological mode, it is entirely possible that Geryon both dies and does not. The end of the Autobiography enacts this paradox of mythology: in the book’s final sentences, Geryon and Herakles are standing with time “rushing towards them / … immortality on their faces, / night at their back.” With this image, Carson grants us at once the release of death and the promise of eternal life. If myths “are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily,” as Carson wrote in her introduction to Euripides’ Grief Lessons, then Herakles and Geryon, in the face of the rushing time, are shrinking back to their human sizes, their myth apparently having run its course.

Myths, however, do not run in linear courses but in loops; they do not have ends. Myth is the inexhaustible realm experienced by the mind, unconcerned with either chronology or mortality. Endlessness—that is stubbornness, or rather a fundamental independence—distinguishes mythological characters from the other figures of the imagination. Though they may not necessarily demand scrutiny, they will hold up to it. As Ursula K. Le Guin once observed in an essay on myth and archetype in science fiction, if you look closely at a stock hero he will vanish before your eyes, being made only of paper or wax or trash. “But you look at Apollo,” she says, “and he looks back at you.” After fifteen years, Anne Carson has looked at her red monster and his lover, and found them looking back.

Red Doc>, the luminous sequel to Autobiography of Red, is the legible trace of this gaze. In honor of Stesichoros, it is a dance of sight and blindness, a process of attempting, and failing, to relate vision to time. Geryon came of age in Autobiography of Red by learning to see, by learning how to live as an artist, and he reached his pinnacle in the light of immortality. Red Doc>, though populated by visionaries and prophets, is in part about the undoing of that youthful action, about learning not to see. “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing,” Carson warned in her own description of the book. We, its readers, join Geryon and his companions in their peril: we must all learn to live in blindness.

When Red Doc> opens, Geryon is living near an underpass with his cattle. He has recently finished reading Proust and has moved on to the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, whom he loves but also resents at times for not being Proust. He is still red, but is no longer writing and no longer called Geryon. As if to reflect his gradual diminishment and the toll of the years, his name is now merely G. His old lover Herakles, too, has a new name that strips him down to his most basic qualities: Sad But Great. Sad, a recently-returned veteran, is a prisoner of war in his own body. He suffers from PTSD and seems to have lost that old “lavishness” that G remembers “made you / want to throw your soul / through every door.”

The attraction between G and Sad has not entirely faded, but their romance does not constitute the burning center of the world that it did in Autobiography of Red. The tight knot of Geryon/Herakles has unraveled; they have aged, and their story is now caught up in a larger, less manageable one. At one point, as G and Sad are driving into an ice cave, they encounter a sign marked ‘IMPASSIBLE.’ “They / don’t mean us,” Sad insists, and drives around it. In that movement of taking the icy road, “for lust of knowing what should not be known,” perhaps, the story begins to push beyond its restraints. Red Doc> opens or finds open a small vacuum in the world, and the forces that rush in to fill it are, in accordance with the themes of blindness and sight, embodied in prophets.

There is Ida, a kleptomaniac whose name is “a verbal word for / the way / you see inside your mind.” True to her verbal nature, Ida is all action, all insight. She spends most of her time drawing, and though she often seems to pay little attention to the external world (she is, for example, always getting lost), she misses nothing essential. She is the only seer who does not suffer from her clarity. The first time she meets Sad, she tells him the etymology of her name, prompting this unnerving exchange:

look at me Ida what do
you see inside your mind /
see a hole right through
the middle of you

A mysterious voice called “Wife of Brain,” functioning like a Greek chorus in the text, identifies Ida as “limitless” and the one who “will soon be our king.” Something in Ida hints at the future: she sets the story in motion (in two moments of slapstick that reveal her — and Carson’s — innate mischief) and seems guaranteed to survive it. Myth often organizes itself into trinities, and Ida completes the triangle of lost, brave heroes, representing the future as Sad represents the past and G the present. In one scene the three of them even adopt this posture, “crowded / like frozen travelers / around a stove.” The heat is all too fragile:

Wanting          a        tiny
burnished   world   and
for    a    moment    they
glimpse  it.  Sad  turns

The second prophet is 4NO, an army friend of Sad’s who cannot stop seeing five beats into the future, “all white / all the time.” He has a fairly successful television career and is writing a play called Prometheus Rebound. (Now that G has all but given up his artistic pursuits, the two prophets’ engagement with art takes on heightened significance: art is a question of prophecy, and therefore of sight or its absence.) There is a natural, poignant sympathy between 4NO and Prometheus, the titan who brought the gift of fire to humanity. 4NO’s foresight renders “his present tense abolished” and his body impotent: his knowledge of the future has never enabled him to prevent catastrophe or suffering. For Prometheus, too, the present was destroyed: as punishment for stealing fire from heaven, he was cursed to have his liver torn from him by a ravenous bird of prey, only to have it grow back overnight and be eaten again. The titan and the prophet each live at the brink of death, entrapped by repetition.

Carson’s allusion to Prometheus may be glancing, but it illustrates how strikingly original her approach to mythology can be. Although 4NO’s play is never performed, we are offered one of its scenes to read, which suggests that Prometheus’ crime was not that he gave man fire, but rather blindness: “I stopped them seeing death before them,” he explains:

I planted blind hope in their hearts

they were breaking
you fool

Arresting substitutions often punctuate Carson’s work, and this exchange of fire for hope is one of her most subtle. She burrows into the story of a physical gift to protect against physical dangers and extracts its metaphorical core: hope, like fire, blinds; if we stare at it, then we cannot see the black night beyond. Carson’s Prometheus has united humanity’s most painful capabilities, the power to recognize death and the power to hope, and made them mutually dependent. Blinded to death we become sighted to loss: Prometheus’ trade did not stop human beings’ breaking but only slowed it—and, perhaps, left us a tentative possibility of healing. As a poet, Carson always tells us not only what we have lost, but what we secretly have.

After the excerpt from Prometheus Rebound, Red Doc> turns increasingly into a story of loss. The final journey of G, Ida, and Sad leads into the underworld, that is, to the clinic where G’s mother is dying. Her dying sharpens Carson’s language until it is nearly unbearable. When she dies, her death turns out to be like the shedding of an old skin, the prelude to metamorphosis. Red Doc> ends in a manner reminiscent of Autobiography of Red: a character whom we thought to be dead suddenly comes back to have a final word, taking us to the book’s center. That center is nowhere inside it but is instead projected toward an indistinct point beyond: “Well not every day / can be a masterpiece. / This one sails out and out / and out.”

Autobiography of Red is a masterpiece; Red Doc>, something after a masterpiece. Readers who loved Autobiography as a coming-of-age story may find Red Doc> confusing. The sequel does not operate under the same conditions as the original, and should therefore not be judged by the same standards. As Anne Carson herself stated in a recent New York Times profile, she was a different person by the time she returned to Geryon’s world, and moreover, “everyone who read the A of Red has moved on by now.” Autobiography of Red was a more grounded text, its guiding principles primarily constructive. Built on the cracked foundation of Stesichoros’ poem, the text stretched its story into a life and its lines across the entire page. The title testified to the intentionality of its project: Autobiography, the deliberate construction of the self. 

Red Doc>, by contrast, belongs to randomness and chaos. Most of its text is tautened into a thin ribbon that falls down the middle of the page as if down a chute. The formatting was an accident, as Carson revealed in The New York Times: she hit the wrong button on her computer and “the margins [went] crazy.” They left Red Doc> more absence than presence, as it needed to be. The title too was random: Doc>, including the angle bracket, was an automatic extension in Carson’s word processing program. Unlike the careful Autobiography, Red Doc> was chosen by fate, a gift from the oracle at Microsoft Word.

Therefore to ask whether Red Doc> succeeds as a sequel is a misguided question. It succeeds as itself. Like all the best of Carson’s work, and like the myth that once inspired it, Red Doc> is gorgeously and frighteningly independent. It is one of those rare books that does not end but lingers on in the reader’s mind, so that reading Anne Carson begins to resemble what Anne Carson thinks reading Proust is like: “like having / an extra unconscious.” It pays to live with this unconscious. It pays to follow her out into the red beyond.


Madeleine LaRue is a writer and translator. She lives in Berlin.