Reviewed by Shannon Tien
Red Doc>. McClelland & Stewart, 2013.
Anne Carson’s newest novel-in-verse, Red Doc>, is the sequel to her earlier, beloved Autobiography of Red (1998). A mix of palimpsest, autobiography, and Greek mythology, Autobiography of Red refigures Geryoneis from the ancient Stesichoros myth as Geryon: a modern-day, misunderstood, homosexual teenager/red-winged monster growing up in Ontario. Autobiography ends by comparing man to a harpoon: “A man moves through time. It means nothing except that, like a harpoon, once thrown, he will arrive” (81). In Red Doc>, Geryon – now simply G – has arrived at middle-age sad and broken, hardly the artist he imagined he would become.
In many ways, G remains recognizable to us as a sensitive, impressionable creature, ill-fated in love. He is still a cattle-herder of sorts (a leader of beautiful and mysterious musk oxen), still, in a way, in love with Herakles (now a traumatized war veteran named Sad But Great, or SBG for short), and still tends towards dramatic encounters with volcanoes. But here the comparison ends; G is as distinct from his teenage self, Geryon, as Red Doc> is from Autobiography of Red. Though the former text continues the latter one, and though both texts are formally exciting in a way that only Carson can be (with her poem-essays and box-books and verse-novels, etc.), these books achieve entirely different ends.
Reading Red Doc> is an exercise in navigation. One is constantly disoriented, much as G is disoriented while attempting to carve a path for himself through the mess of middle age. For him, this age is defined by a series of losses – beauty, sex drive, ambition, his mother. G and SBG (Herakles) take a road trip headed vaguely north, and the looseness of the journey that follows parallels G’s own navigation through mid-life: “G has maps/ open but in the dimness/ cannot read them” (45). The two travel without a destination and get lost inside a glacier before ending up at a strange psychiatric clinic where a riot breaks out and a volcano erupts, in no particular order. They finally arrive at the scene of G’s mother’s death. This disordered wandering is Carson’s riff on mythology’s favoured “journey” motif, common to epics especially, except that Carson, in ways characteristic of poetry after modernism, complicates the linear model. Like the harpoon in Autobiography of Red that is thrown only to arrive, these characters adhere to no particular trajectory through time or space. “Time passes time/ does not pass. Time all/ but passes” Carson writes in a cryptic paragraph devoted to temporal logic (143).
But readers and fans of Carson’s expect and welcome such disorientation. Carson, though audacious enough to make even the most avant-garde poets queasy, is kind enough to provide her readers with signposts: although she consistently challenges form – at times, runs from it with visible revulsion – she often constrains her work with minimal formal clues that act as a sort of GPS through the rest of the wild, formless territory. In Autobiography, it was palimpsest and the original Stesichoros myth. In Red Doc>, it is the narrow chutes of text that hurtle readers through the novel at lightning speed without much control over where eyes wander. It seems likely that our experience navigating/reading is supposed to be similar to G’s experience of middle age. That is –and this is the most striking difference between middle-aged G and teenaged Geryon– he is lost, no longer the hopeful, marginal agent of his own future, and Time hurtles onward, somehow faster than before. “What ever/ happened to your/ autobiography says Sad/ you were always fiddling/ with it in the old days. I/ gave it up says G” (44).
The most important formal signpost of Red Doc> is, of course, the document, the form of which John Guillory reminds us is that ubiquitous “feature of modernity”, that “carrier of information” that risks “the indignity of being filed away.” Unlike Autobiography of Red, Red Doc> is not an autobiography. It is not that the document is somehow more factual or less subjective than the autobiography (for Red Doc> is full of the same mythic, fantastical characters found in Autobiography of Red). It is that documents have no defined audience –in many cases, no audience at all. This is unlike the autobiography, which assumes its audience and its own importance while striving for existence beyond the author’s inevitable demise. That Carson titles G’s story a “document” rather than an autobiography suggests that G no longer aspires to the immortality or canonicity proffered by the project of autobiography (that fantasy of writing one’s self into existence). In middle age, he has relinquished any imagined agency over any imagined audience. And yet, G’s withdrawal from autobiography is not a sad thing; somehow, within the document, G has found a way to live moment by moment in the present, rather than forever in the future, preoccupied with his inevitable death. He is not concerned with the possibility of being “filed away” and neither, I think, is Carson. This idea alone makes Red Doc> a fascinating contribution to contemporary Canadian poetry.