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Monsters, Myths And Poetic License In Anne Carson's 'Red Doc'

Mar 6, 2013
Originally published on March 12, 2013 6:42 pm

You don't read poetry. That's fine. Nobody does anymore. I'm not going to make you feel bad about that. But if there is one book I've pressed on more people in the past decade, it is Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red. And I'm here to tell you its sequel has just been published, and that it's pretty much the biggest event of the year.

Autobiography of Red was a novel written in verse, a crossbreed of poetry and prose that retold the myth of Geryon and Herakles, aka Hercules.

Now, in case your Greek mythology is a little dusty, let me bring you up to speed. Geryon was a monster with three bodies who tended cattle. Sort of a devil with a ranch. Hercules was required to steal that cattle as part of his penance for slaughtering his own wife and children. Anyway.

In Carson's hands, it became a tale of love and growing up in contemporary society. Geryon's just your typical kid who has wings, is the color of a fire truck, and is a pretty decent amateur photographer. Also, he falls in love with an older man — Herakles — and they visit a volcano together. I realize this sounds nuts. But the book is a page-turner. I gave it to one friend who'd never elected to read a line of poetry before, and when I asked for it back, she apologized — she'd already thrust it on someone else.

And now Geryon returns in the sequel, Red Doc>. He's older, wiser, and he's started to go by his first initial, G. G is tending a herd of musk oxen next to a highway when we meet him again. Life is not grand. Then he reunites with Herakles, whom Carson has renamed "Sad." Possibly because he recently acquired post-traumatic stress disorder from soldiering and is not doing well. So the two of them decide to take a road trip. They head north, toward the cold and icy, check themselves into a psychiatric clinic nestled "beside a glacial lake," and soon face yet another volcano.

Look, this book's not for everyone. It's mostly told in single-page, bite-size vignettes of text that are about the dimensions of a Snickers bar. Also, Carson employs the punctuation and syntax of a teenager's Twitter feed. But she is frequently insightful about common things. A lover's sickness. A mother's death. "Her bed," Carson writes, "is as / big as a speedboat and she / a handful of twigs under / the sheet."

Addressing these things, Red Doc is insightful, whimsical, erotic and sad. Carson's especially good with winter landscapes; about an ice cave, she writes: "A sort of cavern all / one color as if squeezed / out of a tube. Wow the / blue says G." The book's poetry-and-prose combination manages to double its capacity for documenting life. As one of the narrators points out, "Prose is a house, poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it."

If you like books to provoke you, dare you, even change the way you think, let me recommend this strange, wonderful pair of novels about a young red man. We all have volcanoes in our lives. Sometimes it takes someone else to show us how to survive them.

Rosecrans Baldwin's most recent book is Paris I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. More than a decade ago, the Canadian poet Anne Carson published a slim book called "Autobiography of Red" and it was a hit. And for a poet and classics professor who writes challenging verse, it brought a new degree of fame. Now, Carson is out with a sequel and for reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin, it's the biggest event of the year.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: You probably don't read poetry. That's fine. Nobody does. I'm not going to make you feel bad about that. But hear me out about "Red Doc." It's sort of a crossbreed of poetry and prose. In her first book, Anne Carson retold the story of Herakles and Geryon. Now, in case your Greek mythology is a little dusty, I'll bring you up to speed. Geryon was a monster who had some cows, sort of a demon with a ranch. Herakles was supposed to steal those cows. It was part of his punishment for slaughtering his family.

Anyway, Anne Carson rewrote that story, but in her book it was about love. Geryon was a typical kid but he had wings. He was the color of a fire truck. He fell disastrously in love with an older guy and they visit a volcano together. I realize this all sounds nuts but the book is a page-turner.

And now, in the sequel, Geryon is back. He's a shepherd living near a highway. Life is not great. Life is also not going well for Herakles. He joined the army and now he seems to have posttraumatic stress disorder. Once they're back together, the two characters decide to take a road trip. They head north toward the cold and icy, they check themselves into a psychiatric clinic and soon, they face yet another volcano.

Look, this book might not be for everyone, but keep reading for Anne Carson's blend of whimsy, eroticism and sadness, for her insight, like this line about a dying mother.

(reading) Her bed is as big as a speedboat and she, a handful of twigs under the sheet.

Let me press on you, this strange, wonderful pair of novels about a young red man because we all have volcanoes in our lives, but sometimes it takes a poet to show us how to survive them.

CORNISH: The new book by Anne Carson is called "Red Doc." It's a sequel to "Autobiography of Red." Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin and his latest book is called "Paris I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.