Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1998.

The primary storyline in Caron’s novel involves the development of Greyon, a red half-man monster with wings, from child to young man. The early sections of the story focus on the protagonist’s relationship with his mother and his older, sexually abusive brother; additionally, this is also when Greyon begins constructing his “autobiography,” wherein he intends to “set down all the inside things/ particularly his own heroism…coolly omit[ing]/ all outside things” (29). During his adolescence, he meets an older boy named Herakles and falls in love. After a brief romance and seduction, Herakles rebuffs Greyon for another lover, casting the latter into a lovesick depression akin to “the cries of the roses/ being burned alive in the noonday sun” (84). In an effort to escape his emotional torment, Greyon travels to Beunos Aires, but ends up accidentally running into Herakles and his new lover, Ancash, who are on a world-wide expedition making recordings of volcanoes. The three men soon enter into a love-triangle that oscillates between love and sadness, anger and lust; such a tumultuous relationship makes them, in a manner of speaking, “neighbors of fire” (146) separated by “a dangerous cloud” (132) that will leave them forever apart. But just as the fact that Greyon’s half-monster and sexual identities transgress normative conventions, so too does the book itself. Subtitled “A Novel in Verse,” Carson’s book complicates our notions of the genre designations “verse” and “novel”; as readers, we are told as much when Herakles grandmother says: “Question is how they use [a genre]—given the limits of the form” (67). The opening sections of the book attempt to undermine normative genre conventions as well. For instance, in the section titled “Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?” Carson introduces readers, in a pseudo-academic, historian-style to the Greek writer Stesichoros, creator of the Greyon myth. According to Carson, as a poet, the Greek writer made “Words bounce” by letting them “do what they want to do and what they have to do” (3); likewise, by “undo[ing] the latches” (5) of language through peculiar adjective usage (4), he was able to create strange and compelling stories theretofore unheard of. Is this Stesichoros a historically accurate figure? Did Carson fabricate this figure entirely? While, no doubt, a bit of research would clear this matter up, Carson herself offers no clues one way or the other. Following the introductory section, the author provides the only surviving extent fragments of the original Greyon story written by Stesichoros, and presumably, translated by Carson herself. This section, in turn, is followed by several sections, in the form of a Platonic dialectic, concerning the blinding of Stesichoros by Helen for “a bit of blasphemy” (15) he wrote with regard to her sexual behavior. At the conclusion of the book, there is an “interview” with Stesichoros in which he speaks about his “aesthetic of blindness,” or the way “people act when they know that important information is being withheld” (147) from them. Also important within in the interview is Stesichoros’ claim that there is “No difference” (149) between form and content. Another aspect of Carson’s book that merits mention is the ekphrastic chapters that conclude the primary narrative. What makes these section interesting is the fact that these sections of the novel in verse are based upon photographs that exist only within the narrative itself, and thus one must question whether or not they can be consider ekphrastic works proper. Again, it appears that these are questions Carson poses with regard to forms, leaving the reader without the necessary information and continually fostering the aforementioned aesthetic of blindness.

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