Review written by Jonathan E.
Book Published by: Knopf/Vintage
I’ve always been one to believe that we dream while asleep to make sense of the world in ways we cannot do while awake. For the most part, our waking life is dictated by the rational; we know about the world based on what we can determine empirically through observation and logical figuring. Although we do not always act rationally, we can still use rationale to explain why we acted irrationally even when we are not making excuses. That being said, there often tends to be a pronounced disparity between what we know about the world and what we feel about the world. We are conscious of the rational only because of the existence of an irrational, yet the word “irrational” (when considering the prefix “Ir”) in itself implies an absence of something (the rational) rather than a recognition of the existence of something else. It’s almost as if we are driven to explain the world through rational eyes because our language directs us to do so. Although I’ve always seen the evolutionary and sociological reasons behind it, I also believe this perspective to be myopic and unfair to our ever-growing minds which constantly strive to prove to us that there is a presence of something(s) in the irrational that is just as important as the rational. Hence, when we are asleep and our rational minds let their guards down, we dream.
I realize that, in so many words, I am summarizing Freud, but I feel it necessary to bring this all up while explaining my feelings towards Anne Carson’s work. Red Doc> is the third book I’ve read of hers, and although each utilizes its own style and content, all three have had a very similar and particular effect on me: they make me feel as if I am experiencing a waking dream. I don’t mean that in the “it was so wonderful, I must have been dreaming” way; rather, her writing approaches the surreal in such an ineffably real way that the experience of reading her work renders the same catharsis one might have after waking from an intense, emotional dream.
I first read Carson’s work in a poetry class I took my senior year of college. My professor assigned Decreation, a book of “essays, poetry, and opera” (it was all of sort of poetry), and I was so taken aback by the profound emotional effect this book had on me that I met my professor for drinks later to talk about it. He explained that he too had a similar experience reading her work, and he recommended that I then explore the poetry of John Ashbury, which is so surreal, it makes Carson’s work look like Atlas Shrugged. (I actually could not even come close to penetrating Ashbury’s work without herbal enhancement, and when I later told this to my professor, he agreed and said that he left Ashbury off the syllabus because he could not, in turn, also assign the students drugs.) Carson’s poetry does not require such supplements to bridge the gap between understanding and feeling; however, I’m sure they couldn’t hurt.
Red Doc>, the book I set out to review, is many things. It is an epic narrative poem, an anachronistic myth, a contemplation on trauma and war, a play, an elegy, and a sequel. The book that precedes Red Doc> is called the Autobiography of Red, published fifteen years prior, which reimagines Greek poet Stesichorus’s poem Geryon (the tenth labor of Hercules, in which Hercules had to steal cattle from Geryon, the red-winged monster) in a modern setting. In Autobiography of Red, the protagonist Geryon is an abused and neglected teenage boy, and rather than try to kill Herakles (another teenage boy), he enters into a romantic relationship with him. Red Doc> picks up when our two characters are middle aged and reconnect on a road trip after long ago having gone their separate ways. Geryon, now called G, is a humble cattle herder, and Herakles, now called Sad But Great, is a recently-returned war veteran suffering from PTSD. Although Red Doc> does not rely on its predecessor (I’m sure it could stand very well on its own), a reading of Autobiography might enhance one’s experience with Red Doc>.
The two books are, however, stylistically very different. Whereas Autobiography essentially reads as a novel in verse, with complex character development and a relatively lucid plot, Red Doc> is a more fragmentary, stream of conscious set of related scenes. Anne Carson has a way of telling her stories in which you do not always know what is going on, but you can feel what is going on, and this experience is no better exhibited than in her latest work. The surrealism is so heavy at times that certain scenes/poems seem as if they were taken right out of a dream, and although you may never know what they exactly mean or represent, your heart cannot help but to interpret them. I think it is this experience that separates a work of poetry from a work of fiction. Carson even addresses this in her book when she writes:
What is the difference between
Poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose
Is a house poetry a man in flames running
Quite fast through it
Readings of Red Doc> will be personal and individualized, and if you travel back to the book months or years later, you might have a very different experience with it.
I read Red Doc> and then reread much of it, and I cannot say I truly know all of it. But like a surreal dream I cannot possibly begin to articulate, I felt it. Carson’s stream of conscious dialogue in verse isn’t always lucid, but it echoes the conversations I have with people in the back of my head as well as, if not better than, any piece of art or literature I’ve encountered. In this sense, I do not think Red Doc> is a difficult or frustrating book to read; in fact, I think most will move through it rather quickly. As long as you are able to let go of needing to know and trust Carson when she writes:
Facts harbor many