More than any other living writer, Anne Carson thrusts against the confines of genre, language and poetic convention, generating something that, however dense and difficult, is spectacularly thought-provoking. “Red Doc>,” a sequel to “Autobiography of Red,” is yet another example of Carson’s supreme ability to incinerate literary preconceptions and, out of their ashes, produce a masterful piece of writing.

Red Doc>

A
Anne Carson
Knopf


In Greek mythology, Herakles’s 10th labor was to capture the cattle of Geryon, a red-winged giant. In “Autobiography of Red,” Carson reimagines them as lovers — Geryon as a timid, winged photographer and Herakles as his older, heartbreaking counterpart — living in suburban America (or perhaps, considering that Carson is from Toronto, suburban Canada). “Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life,” Carson writes in the author’s note on “Red Doc>” ’s front sleeve. “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”

“Red Doc>” begins with Geryon — now much older and going simply by the name G — visiting his sick mother in the hospital. Later, after being hit over the head with a two-by-four, G is reunited with Herakles, now named Sad (he has returned from the army with PTSD). They take a road trip together with a girl named Ida, where they encounter another volcano and stumble upon an ice cave containing ice bats “the size of toasters.” After a stint in a car garage and a mental clinic, they all visit G’s mother in the hospital.

Carson is at her best during these final scenes of the book, especially in the last 15 pages. Some of the poems are extremely short, though nonetheless beautiful and perplexing: “When he is there / they lift the stones together. / The stones are her lungs.” The concluding refrain of “Wife of Brain,” after G’s mother has died, is maybe the best passage of the entire work. It’s deceptively simple and could move you to tears.

In a stark contrast to “Autobiography of Red,” Carson chooses to pack words into tidy rectangular columns that shoot through the center of the page. At first, it looks like unused space — all that blank whiteness surrounding the text seems like a constant reminder of what the book is not, that any expectations going in, having read “Autobiography of Red” or not, will ultimately be shattered. It gives the book an uncomfortable sense of urgency, claustrophobia and personality. Getting through the whole work, or even just one section, feels like coming out of a long dark tunnel.

Carson has been using genre, more or less, to put readers in the dark throughout her writing career. But it’s this not quite being able to see, this grasping a hand forward for a wall or object to hold onto for balance but never actually regaining it, that makes her writing so effective. In “Red Doc>,” Carson tends to her words with the care of a poet but constructs its narrative with the imperfect hand of a novelist. The resulting product is disorienting at times, emotional at others, and almost always sublime.

While “Autobiography of Red” — with its long lines and plain syntax — seemed like prose on the verge of verse, it is the poetry that wins out as the overly dominating force in “Red Doc>.” Very often, fragments of sentences stand alone without a verb, without a subject or without providing any expository information or clear reference to plot. Every section functions like a poem but is functionally not a poem; most turn in a powerful way often unseen in the prose-y “Autobiography,” but their individual existence fully depends on sequence and context like chapters from a novel. For this reason, it will be hard to return to any memorable passage in “Red Doc>” and feel the force of its first reading. It’s kind of bittersweet, and perhaps kind of the point.

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