Anne Carson can come across as a writer with no clear lineage or influences — even as she references the work of other authors, her poetry and prose seem to float relatively free of clear affiliation to any contemporary literary trend. Her career as a classicist (with a generalist’s flair: she’s written about film and modernism extensively) might have something to do with this: It’s possible to interpret her as someone who doesn’t follow a writer’s career, but works through a set of preoccupations, trying to draw ever more out of them, like an academic. Her writings also represent a specific stylistic preoccupation that she has been working out in a similar way — the transposition of Ancient Greek society and literature onto the formal constraints of Modernists like Beckett and Stein.
Her twenty-first book, “Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy,” should be recognizable in form and content to readers of Carson. The conceit of this work is a sort of transposition of the plot of Euripides’ “Helen” onto the biography of Marilyn Monroe, and more broadly to a mid-century milieu of writers, filmmakers and celebrities. Arthur Miller, Truman Capote and Fritz Lang all make appearances, or are alluded to. The titular Norma Jeane Baker (Monroe’s birth name) both is and isn’t Marilyn, and sometimes takes on other guises entirely. The framing device for the play, according to The Shed’s website, is that the text of the play is dictated by an office manager to a typist in 1963. This isn’t explained or included in the slim New Directions edition that I am reading from. The script is mostly done in lineated monologue broken up occasionally by segments of prose that resemble lesson plans.
The play is really in dialogue with two external texts — both the play by Euripides and the 1952 Fritz Lang film “Clash By Night.” The latter, in which Monroe plays a small part, is centered around an increasingly violent love triangle that becomes an antagonism between the two men involved. The theme of both Euripides’ and Lang’s dramatic works is of a woman as a catalyst for violence. Euripides’ play additionally draws attention to the way that Helen was reduced to a prop or a symbol in the course of the Trojan War — he has Menelaus appear in Egypt confused by the sight of his wife, as he thought he had captured her and hidden her in a cave. The Helen Menelaus captured turned out to be a phantom. In Carson’s retelling, this deception (and Helen’s absence from the site of the conflict) is played up — Norma Jeane is, instead of Egypt, in the Chateau Marmont to rehearse lines for “Clash By Night,” waiting for her husband Arthur (Miller; described here, clumsily, as “King of Sparta and New York”) and worrying after her daughter Hermione, who she sets out to meet at the end.
If this sounds convoluted, it’s because it is. One gets the sense here that there’s too much in the ancient and in the contemporary that aren’t effectively talking to each other, even if Carson’s aim is to make points about the most broad human themes possible — gender roles, war, storytelling. There’s an unsatisfying back-and-forth between Carson’s muddled attempts to meld these disparate sources and her stark, generalized proclamations that don’t really end up contributing a whole lot of clarity or movement to the form of the whole. As I read, I kept asking myself why these historical scenarios were being brought together, what good it does. It doesn’t help that Carson frequently reaches for a sort of cheap timeliness — using the word “livestreaming” for the striking image from the Iliad of Helen sewing a tapestry depicting the carnage outside her window, putting a reference to fracking into the play that serves no real aesthetic or thematic purpose. The whole play has a slipshod quality to it, pieces never quite aligning the way you want them to.
Carson’s interest in Ancient Greek as poetic material seems to be in its representative directness as opposed to modern languages — Greek represents, for her, a sort of symbolic bedrock for Western culture, and she is often most effective at her most rigorous exegetical mode (e.g. “Eros the Bittersweet,” “The Gender of Sound,” the notes for her Sappho translations). “Norma Jeane” feels markedly sloppier than this. It relies too much on the novelty, and doesn’t have the sharpness I usually associate with her work. It’s possible, in retrospect, that some of her other poetry traffics in this same vagueness — her poem “TV Men” from 1995 covers a lot of the same thematic ground — and this is just the first time it’s done too crudely, too obviously, with very little of her usual precise fire.