Living Past the End of The Myth: Anne Carson's Red Doc>
By Patrick McGinty
Let me be more clear: it is always good to be reading Anne Carson.
If any writer weaves together classical mythology, 21st century themes, poetry, and drama into a narrative as seamlessly as Carson, then I’ve yet to read it. She’s best known for her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red, which follows the winged red demon-boy Geryon. In Greek mythology, Geryon watched over his island’s red cattle and was eventually slain by Herakles (Hercules, for the Roman- or Disney-inclined). In Autobiography, Carson re-imagines the slaying as a broken heart. Geryon and Herakles are young lovers, with Geryon as the creative, sensitive photographer and Herakles as the type of man who says “I hate it when you cry.”
Geryon is back as G in Carson’s new verse novel Red Doc>, and from G’s first appearance, we are to understand that he is older now: “Angry why is / everyone always angry on / TV. He shuts it off and / pulls the plug.” The timeless adolescent concerns of Autobiography are gone. Whereas the young Geryon was desperate to find beauty through his camera lens, to be metaphorically and literally at peace with his own wings, G lives in a talk-show culture where people “could just rant...like angry sleepwalking.” The adult world hasn’t been kind to G. His “wings are rising / up on his back and he / wants to know why.” Having left his herd, he wonders about his relationship with the cattle, asking why when “choosing to name / individual animals we / pretend they are objects / (Spot) or virtues (Beauty) / or just other selves (Bob). / How or what in their / minds animals calls us we / hesitate to think.”
How did the media get to be like this? Why do we objectify the environment? The questions of the mythic characters are familiar because they’re our own. We as readers should know the answers—we’re presumably older and the era seems more ours than theirs—but like the characters, we haven’t “got outside the circle of [our] mistakes.” Nowhere is this more apparent than the middle of the book, where Herakles returns from war, now known as Sad But Great and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
There has been a steady stream of books written and released about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While they’ve received mostly praise, they’ve also had to endure obvious criticisms. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk masterfully portrays the mania surrounding our trumped up wars, yet the novel “unfortunately” takes place mostly stateside. Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet shows us the arms and legs left behind from a suicide bombings in Mosul but “rushes” through the scenes, the poems seeming to come straight from journal entries. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds is painful and poetic but “too insular” to capture such widespread organizational failure. Fobbitt by David Abrams catalogues the absurdities and contradictions on a military base yet at times trends toward “slapstick.” Both fair and not, this is the commentary surrounding the art produced about our current wars. Such (at times flaky) criticism is the price paid by the artist for taking up the necessary task of unpacking our complicated recent history.
I wonder how our Fiction Hawks will regard Carson’s latest offering, or if her approach will receive any attention at all. She deserves both attention and praise for Red Doc>, which wades into the conditions and effects of PTSD as far as any 160 pages of columned verse you’re likely to ever read. Sad But Great is struggling. “Warplay had me / pumped those years,” he says, but now “sweat broke / out on me at breakfast. I / didn’t expect to come home / that was not in the plan.” Carson fashions the disease as something like a hidden trap (“you read a hundred / military manuals you won’t / find the word kill they trick / you into killing”). Few tools are available to aid escape (“I / can slow it down with / alcohol or pharmaceuticals / I / choose not to”). Our country’s current debate on treatment is ongoing, waged mostly by military officials, VA medical centers, counseling and medical professionals, as well as the ever-meddlesome pharmaceutical companies. Carson wryly notes that “great illness makes great doctors,” but sarcasm aside, she doesn’t shy away from the stakes of the treatment debate:
“You’re the guy who comes every evening with the drugs / no my team is nonpsychotropic / so what do you do / talk / does that help him / one test for this question / what test / did he cap himself yesterday / no / did he cap himself today / no / so talk helps.”
This is not the speech of a lecture or rant, nor is it what the casual reader might expect from mythic narrative poetry. This is plainspoken language between individuals, real and fraught, no different than G’s cautious conversations with Sad (“with Sad he knows / don’t mention warplay”). The language surrounding PTSD in Red Doc> is still trademark Carson, quick and imaginative, yet it feels intentionally flattened. Sad But Great speaks like a veteran. His anger is real. There is a point to be made here and it’s important that it be made in the vernacular: “You could / take the entirety of the / common sense of humans / and put it in the palm of / your hand and still have / room for your dick.”
But make no mistake: this is still Anne Carson we’re talking about. The territory is modern adulthood and the tone is often melancholy, but this is still the most inventive language likely to be published all year. I filled my pages with stars, underlines, and dog-ears.
Need a good first line? “Goodlooking boy wasn’t he.”
A cynical take on love? “Love was a big bunch / of grass that grows up in / your mind and makes you / stupid.”
Could I interest you in a metaphor for a cow jumping off a cliff? A metaphor that doubles as the funniest line I’ve read all year? “Io is Nat King Cole / soaring into the opening / bars of Chestnuts Roasting / on an Open Fire.” (Fear not. Io the cow lives).
As is the case with all the Carson I’ve read, the lines are as aesthetically satisfying as they are intellectually challenging. And by the time all the cow-jumping is complete, we’ve arrived at our emotional destination: bedside with G’s dying mother. When she asks how the trip was, we’re reminded of all the places we’ve been, the many strange and fragmented plots I can’t even begin to broach here: “Lava. / Waterfalls. Beaches. / Chattermarks. The wind. / The white. The ice.” We’ve come a long way with G, beginning way back in Autobiography of Red: “Geryon was monster everything about him was red.” The narrative that stretches across these two books is both dense and loose, impenetrable and conversational, humorous and dark, classical and modern. Some might argue that Carson isn’t really a narrative writer, that she overemphasizes the poetics and loses some aspect of story in doing so. I would challenge these individuals to read G’s final exchange with his mother without having a lung, artery, or tear duct malfunction:
“I look / awful don’t I. No you look / like my Ma.”
Ma might be departing, but she’s headed toward safer ground. G and his friends and cattle inhabit a dangerous world in which things have a habit of always getting worse. It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s human nature. Maybe it’s just growing up. To Carson, figuring out what lays ahead often means looking backward. Her own summation of Red Doc> will likely surpass any review of her book written this year: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about A.M. Homes's novel May We Be Forgiven.