Book: Autobiography of Red

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Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Author: Anne Carson
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

In her first novel in verse, Anne Carson bridges the gap between classicism and the modern, poetry and prose, with a volcanic journey into the soul of a winged red monster named Geryon.

There is a strong mixture of whimsy and sadness in Geryon’s story. He is tormented as a boy by his brother, escapes to a parallel world of photography, and falls in love with Herakles—a golden young man who leaves Geryon at the peak of infatuation. Geryon retreats ever further into the world created by his camera, until that glass house is suddenly and irrevocably shattered by Herakles’ return. Running throughout is Geryon’s fascination with his wings, the color red, and the fantastic accident of who he is.

Autobiography of Red is a deceptively simple narrative layered with currents of meaning, emotion, and the truth about what it’s like to be red. It is a powerful and unsettling story that moves, disturbs, and delights.


Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is a novel in verse, the author’s first. A classicist by profession as well as a poet, Carson has drawn on antiquity for her cast, updating the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original version, of course, Herakles killed the red-skinned, winged Geryon. In Carson’s very contemporary retelling, he merely inspires, but does not return, the monster’s passion. By choosing Geryon as her central character, Carson can bring up the questions of existence as if they hadn’t been asked before. After all, the monster’s instincts have not been numbed by civilization. Fires twist through him. We feel the pain of learning the most elementary things, and then the volcanic intensity that comes with that more advanced thing, love. Yet Carson doesn’t so much tell the story of Geryon’s love as mediate his very being through semiological surfaces: cafes, video stores, lipstick, a library where he shelves government documents with a “forlorn austerity, / tall and hushed in their ranges as veterans of a forgotten war.” Carson seldom satisfies herself with an image of the world. Instead she atomizes the world, leaving it broken down, refracted, and glinting. At times her verbal pyrotechnics manage to render pure energy:

A little button at the end of each range activated the fluorescent track above it.
A yellowing 5 x 7 index card
Scotch-taped below each button said EXTINGUISH LIGHT WHEN NOT IN USE.
Geryon went flickering
through the ranges like a bit of mercury flipping the switches on and off.
The librarians thought him
a talented boy with a shadow side.

No novelist could have gotten away with that last line. Yet it’s very much to the point: Carson’s Geryon is, among other things, a camera freak who doesn’t understand that an observer must inevitably alter the nature of the thing observed. Here is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, cheek-by-jowl with the ancients! And indeed, Carson’s achievement is to interweave the archaic and the modern so seamlessly that by the time we finish reading Autobiography of Red, the entire landscape looks inside out. —Mark Rudman

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