With the publication of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse in 1998, Anne Carson became something of a cult figure.
Carson employed the familiar troWith the publication of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse in 1998, Anne Carson became something of a cult figure.
Carson employed the familiar trope of taking a story out of Greek lore and making it contemporary. But Autobiography of Red is neither epic like James Joyce's Ulysses nor archaic like Mary Shelley's retelling of "The Modern Prometheus" in Frankenstein.
Carson uses the obscure story of Herakles' killing of Geryon, a red-winged creature who watches over a herd, to explore why we are cursed with "the human custom of wrong love." What little we know of the original tale survives in fragments attributed to Stesichoros, who lived, Carson tells us with tongue planted firmly in cheek, in the time between Homer and Gertrude Stein.
In Carson's version, Geryon is an inordinately sensitive young man who can "feel his eyes leaning out of his skull on their little connectors." Abused by his brother and shunned by his mother, when Geryon comes of age, he trades the domestic nightmare of his childhood home for the rough companionship of Herakles, who proves to be even more indifferent to Geryon's affection than his mother. Red's "autobiography" documents their on-and-off romance and Geryon's burgeoning relationship to art.
Geryon is a hugely sympathetic character—a wounded bird who has to be coaxed from the nest he's built for himself. He's also a monster: His skin is red, and he possesses enormous wings that he keeps hidden underneath his clothing. Geryon is both a modern figure and a mythological creature in the same way that Carson's book is both a novel and a poem.
If an artist is someone who makes the old new and the familiar unfamiliar, then Carson certainly qualifies. The fact that she's an expert in mythology and teaches ancient Greek for a living is both the key to her work and beside the point, because her concerns are contemporary and her language fresh.
"A church bell rang across the page and the hour of six P.M. flowed through the hotel like a wave. Lamps snapped on and white bedspreads sprang forward, water rushed in the walls, the elevator crashed like a mastodon within its hollow cage."
All you really need to know is that Carson writes whatever the hell she wants. Her stories, structure and language are unique, which probably says something about our culture's ambivalent attitude toward history and its chroniclers....more
The author's allergy to artifice makes these autobiographical stories of sex and degradation almost grindingly dull. As a character and a construct, CThe author's allergy to artifice makes these autobiographical stories of sex and degradation almost grindingly dull. As a character and a construct, Calloway fascinates. Who would expose themselves like this? To what purpose? But aside from serving as a cautionary tale regarding the perils of the Internet, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this. ...more
“Parents,” an old roommate of mine said after an exasperating phone conversation with his mother. “Don’t ever have them.” The joke still resonates bec“Parents,” an old roommate of mine said after an exasperating phone conversation with his mother. “Don’t ever have them.” The joke still resonates because it captures the absurdity of family drama: The only way to escape it is to avoid being born. One of the comforts of literature, however, is to remind us that no matter how great our suffering might be, there are those who have it much, much worse.
That’s the impression one gets reading Nowhere Near Normal, Traci Foust’s memoir about growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chief among Foust’s compulsions was a peculiar kind of counting where the consequences of ignoring her impulses overshadowed reason.
For instance, if she failed to listen for the sound of gas escaping the stovetop burners after she turned them off, she would cause the gruesome death of her entire family. In Foust’s imagination, “what if” became “they’re all gonna die.”
That’s a lot of baggage for a kid to deal with under normal circumstances, but this is a girl who grew up in a tiny apartment with her older sister, domineering single mother and grandmother—none of whom understood what’s wrong with Traci.
Though Foust’s project feels like it ought to be rooted in the realism of daytime television, it’s so skillfully written it reads like a modernist novel. Foust grew up in northern California and lives in San Diego, but it’s the psychological landscape that resonates....more
When I was in the Navy, the first time I took acid I was making my way from the quarterdeck to the berthing compartment when I passed the mess decks.When I was in the Navy, the first time I took acid I was making my way from the quarterdeck to the berthing compartment when I passed the mess decks. There was a movie playing called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, a drama that explores the difficulty of open relationships in 1969. In my addled state, it was a total mindfuck full of non`sequiturs. "I hate violence. I don't even have porch lights" being one that sticks out in my mind today. The Ravishing of Lol Stein is like that.
I have so many questions about the composition of this book, what the author was trying to achieve, about the nature of Lol's distress, why everyone sounds like a B-movie actor. Also, why Lol instead of Lola? I just don't understand.
The scenes with dialogue are the most baffling as they often feel like they've been jumbled together and rearranged, stripped of important clues. THere's a 20 page party scene this is full of people sitting, talking, standing, talking. People decide they are in love and they can't bear to be apart and it will never work. Doomed, I tell you!
Even the jacket copy is strange, with a short summary of the novel followed by an excerpt from a review in the New Yorker by Genet that is also a a short summary, summarizing the exact same points summarized in the summary above it. I enjoyed reading the book, so much so that I'm tempted to give it four stars instead of three, but the mechanics of how it is told are clumsy and forced so while I got something out of the experience I didn't believe it. It's like a device whose batteries keep falling out, putting the brakes on whatever enjoyment one is able to get out of it.
Will I read more Duras? Most definitely. Please tell me what to read (besides The Lover). ...more
I picked this up in the Museum of the Aleutians in Dutch Harbor and read it on the plane. An interesting overview of this remote island's history, tesI picked this up in the Museum of the Aleutians in Dutch Harbor and read it on the plane. An interesting overview of this remote island's history, testimonies from village elders, and lengthier stories about significant events, including the evacuation of all Aleutian peoples from the islands during WWII and a stirring account of a shipwreck. What's cool about the project is that the project was undertaken by schoolchildren in the village of Nikolski -- a village of 34. I wish more communities would undertake projects like this. ...more
Of all the writers I've read and seen perform over the years, I can't think of voice more original than McClanahan's. The energy, humor, and verve onOf all the writers I've read and seen perform over the years, I can't think of voice more original than McClanahan's. The energy, humor, and verve on display in his stories is even more abundant in this longer work of linked tales. Highly recommended. ...more
I didn’t realize Seamus Heaney was from the North until I read Field Notes, and I think it shows. The first poem, “oysters” caught my attention rightI didn’t realize Seamus Heaney was from the North until I read Field Notes, and I think it shows. The first poem, “oysters” caught my attention right away with its description of “frond-lipped, brine-stung” bivalves. Heaney’s language, like that of all the great Irish writers, is sensual and sentimental, but whereas Irish poets evoke Irishness, but Heaney conjures up Ireland itself. In the first of the Glanmore Sonnets, Heaney describes the fog over “the turned-up acres” of a freshly ploughed field as “steaming,” a place where the traveler’s “ghosts come striding into their spring stations.” I think I would be very happy to spend a season doing nothing but reading Heaney and walking in Ireland....more
I've read all of Jami's books and consider her a friend so I won't pretend to be biased or objective. I can tell you that for each of her three previoI've read all of Jami's books and consider her a friend so I won't pretend to be biased or objective. I can tell you that for each of her three previous books she drove from New York to California and back and appeared in Vermin on the Mount events in SD and LA. You have to love that get-in-the-van bring-the-message-to-the-masses dedication.
The Middlesteins differs from Jami's previous work. It's the story of a family. A big, sprawling messy family filled with unruly kids, parents, aunts. uncles, grandparents and so on. You know why there are so many orphans in literary fiction? Because writing about families is hard. Jami makes it look easy.
In the middle of this family is Edie. A larger-than-life character whose largeness is the central problem of the book. What I like most is its Dos Passos-like structure. We get to know each family member through chapters dedicated to them, but then we move on. (Edie and her husband Richard are the only characters who get multiple chapters.) At first I was a bit taken aback when I realized that this "one and done" approach meant I wouldn't be returning to my favorite characters' point of view. However, each character factors into other stories. So although when we meet Robin, Edie's daughter, early in the novel as a young woman on her own, we eventually see her as a daughter, an aunt, and grieving mother.
In a family, no one is monolithic. One is many things to many people. A lovable brother is also a reckless son, a feckless husband, and a doting uncle. With The Middlesteins, Jami has created a family with a long memory that is impossible to forget. ...more
We send messages every day. Thoughtlessly, dutifully, compulsively. In 21st-century America, sending messages is how we communicate.
But sometimes “senWe send messages every day. Thoughtlessly, dutifully, compulsively. In 21st-century America, sending messages is how we communicate.
But sometimes “sending a message” has another connotation, whereby the act of doing one thing communicates something else. A politician who opens her campaign in her opponent’s hometown “sends a message” that she’s going to be aggressive. A man who takes his wife to the Italian restaurant where he proposed is declaring more than a desire for meatballs. These messages are metaphors in action.
Four New Messages, Joshua Cohen’s collection of four long stories, opens with its most accessible tale. “Emission” is about a drug dealer named Mono who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not a drug deal but a social contract that goes awry.
Late one night at a party, Mono commits the most heinous of 21st-century offenses: He over-shares. Unfortunately for Mono, someone uses the information to put his future in jeopardy. This “nocturnal emission” is both a metaphor for his offense and the substance (sorry) of the story he shares.
“Emission” is a cautionary tale, of and for our time, about a man’s attempt to control a message that he doesn’t want out in the world. In other words, it’s the story of a fool.
In “McDonald’s,” the next story, the conflict centers on an author’s reluctance to mention the name of a fast-food corporation in a short story he’s writing. While the title reveals that the fight was lost before it began, the reader, as witness to the construction, gets a front-row seat to the struggle.
The narrator frets over the message he may or may not be sending by including the name of a multinational corporation whose role in the lives of most Americans is already too pervasive. “I walked—I mclive in Brooklyn, I mchave no car—to McDonald’s.”
It’s not the free advertising or the food products crudding up our arteries that’s problematic for the protagonist; it’s the realization that a world without McDonald’s is a world we wouldn’t recognize. Branding has become a part of the furniture of setting. “[Writers will] insert a brand into their story because brands have been inserted into their lives.”
“Sent” is the last story, and it’s the collection’s longest and deserves more consideration than I can give it here. Its narrative components include a family crib passed down many generations, the squalor of Soviet-style block apartments, a roving mobile pornography studio and a young American’s obsessive search for an amateur actress who appeared in an Eastern European porn video.
“Sent” begins as an epic folktale, wanders into participatory reportage and concludes as a failed quest. To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely convinced that it isn’t a glorious send-up of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
Throughout the latter half of the story, the protagonist, who might be the same man we meet in “Mc- Donald’s,” sends messages to his parents via email. These messages are always subterfuges of a sort, expansions of the fiction that is his motivation for traveling abroad, but curtailed in a way so as not to create confusion or worry. In other words: lies that fool no one.
Perhaps Cohen set his protagonist adrift in this Baltic purgatory, not to ask us to imagine it, but to shame us for the first-world priorities—embracing technology we don’t understand, putting our trust in corporations and obsessing about things that serve no purpose—that consume us so completely that we don’t have to imagine what life might be like on the other side of the world if we don’t want to, and 999 times out of 1,000, we don’t want to.
But in this strange place where the past has a choke-hold on the present, the protagonist finds his voice. Is Cohen’s message a rejection of consumer-driven capitalism?
No. I think embedded in all this miscommunication is a deep-seated frustration with the way we talk to each other, the way we tell our stories.
Contemporary American realism isn’t a mirror; it’s advertising for an outdated value system. We’ve moved on, advanced, evolved, etc., but technology continues to make it easy to communicate—as long as we keep it short and snappy. Ergo, the primacy of language that is efficient and economical, i.e. the language of advertising.
Four New Messages suggests there is progress to be made, but we are holding ourselves back. We can explore new ways of sharing our experiences in the world and risk looking foolish, or we can shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s the world we mclive in.” ...more
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max is the hugely compelling first biography of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, which isEvery Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max is the hugely compelling first biography of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, which is regarded by some as the most important American novel of the late 20th century.
After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Max was assigned to write a story for The New Yorker about the author’s life and work in the days leading up to his death. Max, driven by a desire to know more, expanded the essay into this book. Wal-lace was a reclusive writer who used his fame as a shield, which those close to him fiercely protected. Now we know why.
Readers of Infinite Jest have guessed that something happened to Wallace during his short stay at Harvard. In the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which is essentially a transcript of a week David Lipsky spent on the road with Wallace shortly after Infinite Jest was published, Lipsky tries to get Wallace to talk about it no less than three times. Wallace steadfastly refused.
Like many who deal with undiagnosed mental illness, as a young man, Wallace self-medicated with marijuana when he could get it and alcohol when he could not. Over time, this coping mechanism morphed into a lifestyle, and, soon after, the drugs and alcohol created more problems than they alleviated. Addiction is difficult enough for those who don’t suffer from mental illness, but doubly so for those who do. Wallace, however, appeared to have beaten his demons.
Wallace didn’t use recovery as a rabbit hole to escape his situation and then put it behind him. He regularly attended meetings, sponsored other drunks and addicts and kept in touch with fellow substance abusers all his life. He also predictably plundered the axioms and idioms of drug and alcohol rehabilitation in his fiction. But if his recovery was such a success, where did he go wrong?
Max maps out the evidence and lets the reader draw her or his own conclusions. What Max does best is document how the chaos and confusion or safety and serenity of his life impacted his art. If only Wallace’s ghost could rewrite the ending of this tragic story. ...more