Anne Carson's take on a story first told 3,000 years ago is astonishing, writes Sarah Crown
Red Doc>, the latest verse-novel from Anne Carson's MacArthur genius grant-endorsed pen, trails so many tempting threads that it is a job to decide which to follow first. Where to start: with her antic reworking of Greek mythology? Her exuberant intertextuality? Her formal experimentalism, which leaves swaths of contemporary poetry looking irremediably blah by comparison? That weird angle bracket in the title?
Start at the very beginning, the song advises – but the quest for a true beginning in Red Doc> is doomed. The book is a sequel, of sorts, to the Canadian poet's 1998 Autobiography of Red– in turn an adaptation of an all-but-forgotten fragment of a work by one Stesichorus, an all-but-forgotten Greek poet. There's more: this work, "Geryoneis", was itself a retelling of the 10th labour of Herakles, in which he must slay the red, winged monster Geryon in order to steal his cattle. Having drilled down through myth and history, though, Carson's version of the version whisks us back to the present again. Her Geryon is a contemporary teenage boy – arty, moody, gay – and though his wings survive the journey, folded away under his shirt, the only slaying that takes place here is metaphorical. Geryon falls, hard, for cosmopolitan charmer Herakles, who ultimately ditches him on the agelessly base pretext: "I want you to be free."
Carson is grappling with deep time, yet Autobiography of Red remains a straightforward(ish) retelling of a myth; Red Doc> is a far more temporally subtle proposition. Carson has taken her demigods and monsters, already decoupled from history, bestowed on them the gift of a modern afterlife – and then focused on the collateral damage. "Call no man happy until he's dead," said Aeschylus; in Red Doc>, Carson drives his point home. Geryon – now plain G – has grown up and is dealing, wearily, with the consequences: damaged friends, ailing relatives, loss of libido, loss of looks ("Gathering swim / gear in the bathroom he / glances at the mirror. / Sharp stab his face no / longer young no more / beauty impact"). Herakles, meanwhile – who's stood, frozen in myth, as an icon of youth and strength for millennia – reappears as Sad But Great, a broken war veteran; PTSD-ravaged, "ragged eyes pouring in/ every direction". The pair's relationship, so floodlit and consuming in Autobiography of Red, is now flatly adult, jumping straight to the bleakly compromised point of "What do you / mean G thinks but doesn't / ask. Sad would just repeat / it. G would just get mad."
The book is haunted by this sense of time passing. G is reading Proust, and reflects that "too much memory is the problem". Our mortal anxiety over the impossibility of knowing what is round the next corner, meanwhile, is dramatised through the character of 4NO, an inept oracle who sees five seconds "ahead of / time all the time". In Greek tragedy, the gift of foresight is almost invariably ironic; in this case it is profoundly so. Practically useless, the only effect of 4NO's ability is to leave him unable to inhabit the now; for him there is "no / present moment not / skinned shaved stained / saturated overrun outraged / by raw data from the / future". "To stand in time with your / back to the future your / face to the past," he muses, longingly, "what a / relief it would be."
Too bad. Carson's characters are swept along like the rest of us. In a nice echo of this forward motion, Red Doc> is constructed around a road trip, in which G and Sad, joined by artist Ida, set out on a picaresque journey across glaciers and pastures, via a psychiatric clinic and an ice cave filled with bats "the size of toasters". The text, strikingly set in justified, two-inch columns, unfurls down the page like the highways on which our heroes travel, carrying us to our final destination: the room in which G's mother is dying.
The emotional heart of the book is a moment both in time and out of it; specific, and a product of Carson's temporal meddling, but also eternal. G's mother – a vivid, amused presence in Autobiography of Red– is now lying, diminished, in a bed "as / big as a speedboat and she / a handful of twigs under / the sheet". Their final hours together are achingly inconsequential: they discuss their trip, Ida's shoes; skidding off one another, almost, apart from the single piercing moment when G plucks the white hairs from his mother's chin. "I look / awful don't I" she says. "No," he replies, "you look / like my Ma." When death comes, it comes fast and quiet, and even for this, time fails to stop. "Time passes oh boy," G concludes. "Time / got the jump on me yes / it did."
You'd be justified in thinking, on finishing Red Doc>, that it is Carson who has got the jump here. To engage so fluidly, so originally and compellingly, with a story first told more than 3,000 years ago, is astonishing: her ambition is one thing; the fact that it is so completely achieved is, frankly, something else. And the angle bracket? Apparently, it was the default name the computer gave to the file in which the poem was saved. The sense it furnishes of something fundamentally incompletable provides a typically neat and witty comment on the work. The best stories don't have beginnings or endings, not really, but they do have great tellers. Carson is, simply, one of the very best.