Released in 1998, author Anne Carson’s verse novel The Autobiography of Red captured the attention of critics with its juxtaposition of harsh themes and delicate prose. The idea of the novel is chiseled in marble; while it bears an admittedly well-crafted writing style, it also explores the concrete fundamentals of humanity with a keen eye and careful metaphor. Carson takes the liberty to experiment with the way that words can interact throughout the piece, and it’s the author’s comprehensive understanding of these relationships that allow the novel to become heartbreakingly palpable and notably self-aware.
The actual content of the novel is remarkably dense; first and foremost, the storyline is a loose reimagining of the Tenth Labor of Hercules. Within this metaphor, the main character draws his name from the monster that Hercules was forced to battle, Geryon, but remains a completely original character in the fact that he has been given red skin and a set of wings that he attempts to hide underneath his clothes. Consequently, Geryon faces the internal struggle of being a man that looks like a monster, while the internal dialogue of the protagonist reflects an effortlessly kindhearted spirit.
The book explores the difficulties that the protagonist faces as a young boy, although his outward appearance is rarely acknowledged by other characters within the novel. Geryon is sexually abused by his older brother, and his weak but affectionate mother struggles to protect her son from the trauma that he is being exposed to. Carson takes the liberty to characterize the protagonist around the fact that he internalizes his emotional distress, but also uses it to self-improve; Geryon ultimately grows from his experiences in his home, and returns as a bright-eyed and carefully pensive young man after he sets out on his own.
However, the backbone of the novel lies in the romance that Geryon develops with another young man, aptly named Herakles, who widens Geryon’s view of the world but also takes advantage of his wide-eyed innocence. The author applies the interdependence of the two characters to explore the idea of what it genuinely means to be in love, and her detailed analysis is smart, raw, and unique. She fully embraces the idea that the relationship between Heracles and Geryon is far from perfect, but also maintains a distinctly genuine undertone.
By writing the narrative in poetry rather than prose, Carson is able to take advantage of the fact that sentence structure and punctuation can ultimately detract from the way a piece is read. Dialogue is haphazardly placed in the middle of personal description without quotes or indication, and it leaves the reader with a commanding sense of urgency as well as a natural stream of consciousness in the narrative. There’s a craft to the way Carson places words on a page, and it’s for that simple reason the narrative manages to create such an emotional response.
As a verse novel, The Autobiography of Red was created with a masterful attention to detail and insight. Anne Carson has crafted a story that is clever, self-aware, and intensely original.