There is a moment early on in Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson’s 1998 “novel in verse,” in which Geryon, the red-skinned, winged protagonist, is abandoned by his brother in front of their elementary school. Not knowing which door to take to gain access to the building, Geryon stands in the falling snow outside the window of his kindergarten class, clutching his book bag and waiting forlornly for someone to notice him. The incident is so subtle, and so fraught with emotion, that any reader with even a passing experience of being an outsider cannot help but be moved.
The only comparable scene in Red Doc>, Carson’s sort-of sequel to Autobiography of Red, comes near the end, when Geryon, now an adult and referred to only as G, plucks the whiskers from his dying mother’s chin. This sequence contains glimmers of the immediacy that made the earlier book such a charged reading experience. Elsewhere, however, Red Doc> retreats into obscurantism and an overly intellectual approach that is liable to alienate many readers.
The book is formally a picaresque, featuring a group of characters – including G’s former lover, a veteran known as Sad But Great, who suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder; a woman named Ida; and, in a parallel narrative stream, a musk ox named Io – travelling across various landscapes before confronting a volcano (which echoes scenes from the earlier book) and finally arriving at the deathbed of G’s mother.
The narrative style resembles the stream-of-consciousness employed by the high modernists; Carson recalls Proust explicitly on numerous occasions. But the transitions often feel arbitrary: in one instance, a kind of Greek chorus that intermittently comments on the narrative notes, “they’ve come / by mistake to a private clinic beside a glacial lake run / by a guy in overalls who (luckily) does know how to install / a driveshaft.”
The connections have a dreamlike feel, but the poet seems to insist on an underlying order. She tips her hand by invoking Daniil Kharms, a Soviet-era avant-gardist who wrote in a 1937 journal entry, “I am interested only in nonsense.” At one point, G tosses a copy of one of Kharms’s books across the room, wondering if he hates it “for some good reason or for not being Proust.”
The modernist trappings render Red Doc> unfamiliar – “Numb normal vanishes,” we are told – but they also put the reader at an emotional remove from the characters. “To feel anything deranges you,” Carson writes. “To be seen feeling anything strips you naked.” Red Doc> seems mostly determined to avoid this nakedness. “[Am] I talking outside your emotional zipcode,” one character asks. Yes, exactly.