Sunday, February 05, 2006

Review, "Autobiography of Red", Anne Carson

Now, this was a weird little book.

Normally I don't like weird little books - oftentimes I can't understand how they end, and this usually renders me belligerent and negative towards them because they make me feel stupid for not catching the nuances and symbolism and great revolutionary literary ideas that all the high-and-mighty book critics whose positive blurbs are pasted on the back covers seem to find.

I didn't quite understand it, and I didn't have a working knowledge of the particular Greek legend that provided one of the sources of the story, but I did come through the book feeling relatively together and with a vague, blurry (but still present) idea of what happened. The main character is Geryon, a creature who is red, sees red, and has bony, fluttery wings (that actually work - although he only uses them once). He does have to hide his wings when in public, but other than that his appearance doesn't seem to bother anyone else, despite the fact that he is supposed to be brilliant crimson. While at first, I was at a loss to decide Was he really a red, winged monster? Or just imagining himself a red-winged monster? eventually it is revealed a shade less ambiguously than at the start.

The very beginning of the book is something I can barely describe or comprehend. It begins with an explanation that Geryon the red monster was, as found in fragments of writing attributed to ancient writer Stesichoros, Herakles' 10th labour. He lived on an island with red cattle and was killed by Herakles, as was his little red dog. It then goes on through three appendices that describe inane things about how Stesichoros was blinded by Helen (of Troy), because he called her a whore. It reminded me, of all things, of my Symbolic Logic classes, because the body of Appendix C ("Clearing up the Question of Stesichoros' Blinding By Helen") is "1. Either Stesichoros was a blind man or he was not. 2. If Stesichoros was a blind man either his blindness was a temporary condition or it was permanent"...and goes on and on in "either it was or it wasn't" scenarios.

After the puzzling appendices comes the main body of the book, which is more straightforward and is one long poem. It's divided into chapters that are one to four pages long, and follow Geryon from when he was first sexually abused by his older brother at five, to his homosexual relationship with a young man named Herakles (the name is significant) at fourteen, to his trip to South America as an adult of twenty-two where he sees Herakles again with another guy and is forced to re-evaluate his feelings for him, feelings that unfortunately still exist.

The myths explained in the Appendices don't really have any bearing on the main body of the story. I'm sure it must be a metaphor, but not one that I, at present, can accurately evaluate. For instance, in the main body, Geryon is a photographer, not a keeper of red cattle, and so on and so forth. However, as it was one long poem, I read it very quickly and it allowed for some very beautiful turns of phrase that really made the adventures and feelings of Geryon come alive. It got me under Geryon's scarlet skin, where everything was hot and tight and hurtful. I empathized deeply with his character, and that's why I enjoyed this book and didn't throw it aside right afterwards, dismissing it with a mouthful of sour grapes as "a ridiculous artsy-fartsy novel".

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