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Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

 Author: Carson, Anne  Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group  Published: 1998  ISBN: 978-0375701290  Pages: 160  Country: USA  Language: English

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist  


Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

The award-winning poet reinvents a genre in a stunning work that is both a novel and a poem, both an unconventional re-creation of an ancient Greek myth and a wholly original coming-of-age story set in the present.

Geryon, a young boy who is also a winged red monster, reveals the volcanic terrain of his fragile, tormented soul in an autobiography he begins at the age of five. As he grows older, Geryon escapes his abusive brother and affectionate but ineffectual mother, finding solace behind the lens of his camera and in the arms of a young man named Herakles, a cavalier drifter who leaves him at the peak of infatuation. When Herakles reappears years later, Geryon confronts again the pain of his desire and embarks on a journey that will unleash his creative imagination to its fullest extent. By turns whimsical and haunting, erudite and accessible, richly layered and deceptively simple, Autobiography of Red is a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is.


“Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today.” — Michael Ondaatje

“This book is amazing–I haven’t discovered any writing in years so marvelously disturbing.” — Alice Munro

“A profound love story…sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender.” — The New York Times Book Review

“A deeply odd and immensely engaging book…. [Carson] exposes with passionate force the mythic underlying the explosive everyday.” — The Village Voice

Autobiography of Red, like most of what Anne Carson writes, is a shape-shifter. It’s a blending of modern and archaic, mythic and mundane: part queer coming-of-age novel, part reimagined fragmentary poem by the Greek poet Stesichorus. The original poem, Geryoneis, followed the life of the monster Geryon leading up to his death at the hands of Hercules. In Carson’s telling, Geryon becomes a sensitive and artistic boy of our own time, marked out by his family and peers as being monstrously non-normal. Hercules (Herakles, in Carson’s precise transliteration from the Greek) is, naturally, still rough with people, but doesn’t break Geryon’s skull—instead, he breaks his heart.

To inhabit one’s self, one must learn to see a larger, selfless world. Autobiography of Red moves through Geryon’s coming-of-age in fluid verse, using a third-person narration that is almost always at a close psychic distance and which transitions from innocent narcissism to the capacity to speak beyond itself. In Geryon’s childhood, the personal self is paramount. Details about the world are almost never mentioned—or, if they are, they are described in the context of how they appear to Geryon. In a scene describing the layout of his school, we read: “Between Main Door and Kindergarten ran a corridor. To Geryon it was / a hundred thousand miles / of thunder tunnels and indoor neon sky slammed open by giants.” The outside world is strange, and older children are giants—barely human. There is no attempt to characterize anyone who isn’t already known. At home, on the other hand, where everything is familiar, Geryon seems to be a gravitational center. When Geryon feels ashamed at his brother’s reminder that he does not know how to tie his shoes, “The fruitbowl paused. Geryon could in fact tie knots but not bows.” Even the inanimate world moves in step with Geryon’s thoughts.

Through first withholding and then granting the narration’s use of details external to Geryon’s inner experience, Carson makes it clear that Geryon’s journey of self-discovery is, in part, a journey towards seeing the self as one among other selves. The mature observer is the one with the power to lose oneself in the alternate perspectives. Carson’s ultimate zoom-out is the one that has been there from the beginning, even in Geryon’s earliest self-image. It’s the very frame of the book: autobiography via mythic metaphor. This spreading of consciousness allows Geryon to see himself as a part of history and myth. That tendency of ours—to see ourselves as part of a story extending beyond the lived-in era—can be self-aggrandizing. But, when trained, it can also be vital to an immortal universality, and to taking the widest possible perspective. We learn, finally, to say not just I am Geryon, or He is Herakles but also she will be, they were, we all are.”

A critical essay by Amelia Brown for Ploughshares




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