Aftershocks can go on for years

The inevitable happens …. Geryon meets Herakles again, with predictable consequences:

The effort it took to pull himself
away from Herakles’ eyes
could have been measured on the scale devised by Richter.

But things are not the same, for Herakles is with another man.

Volcanoes and earthquakes make repeated appearances in Carson’s work. They also feature in Autobiography of Red, where they symbolise some of the effects of a (troubled) love relationship. So when Ancash, Herakles’ new friend, notes that ‘aftershocks can go on for years’, Geryon laconically replies, ‘I know’, thinking not of tectonic movements but of the aftershocks of his relationship with Herakles, which are still troubling him many years on.

It is all too much for him. After a while, Geryon can’t cope with the company of the two friends any more. He ‘threw himself out the door’, we are told in typical ‘Carsonesque’ fashion, only to end up ‘in his hotel room on the end of the bed staring at the blank TV screen’.

It was seven a.m. Total agitation possessed him. He had held off phoning Herakles
for two days. Even now he was not
looking at the telephone (which he had placed in the bottom of his sock drawer).

when from deep in its cave of socks the telephone
rang. Geryon dove for it.

Some time later, Herakles, Geryon and Ancash visit a Peruvian volcano, which, in ancient times, used to be worshipped as a deity. People were thrown into it, Ancash explains, not for sacrifice but as a testing procedure:

They were looking for people
from the inside. Wise ones.

‘People from the inside’ – like Geryon, in other words, who not only is an inside person, an introvert, but has shown himself to be of considerable intellectual and emotional depth.

Then, in one of the book’s most poignant moments, Ancash explains to Geryon that some of those who had been thrown into the volcano return. They manage this due to their wings:

Wings? Yes that’s what they say the Yazcamac return as red people with wings,
all their weaknesses burned away –
and their mortality.

Like Geryon again, who is red and has wings, two features that have been troubling him all his life but are here shown to be something rather special. In a book that has layers upon layers, Carson plays with the ancient story upon which it is based and which features a red monster. But who is the monster in this story, deep, thoughtful Geryon, the wise inside person, or Herakles, who comes across as shallow and selfish, oblivious to the feelings of his two friends?

Geryon, we read, ‘thought about thoughts’.

Even when they were lovers
he had never known what Herakles was thinking.

What Geryon was thinking Herakles never asked. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.

Or consider the following conversation, which illustrates so well how people can be together and yet not be together at all:

Geryon what’s wrong? Jesus I hate it when you cry. What is it?
Geryon thinks hard.
I once loved you, now I don’t know you at all. He does not say this.
I was thinking about time – he gropes –
you know how apart people are in time together and apart at the same time – stops.

All the while, Geryon keeps on struggling, as my last two examples, both couched in language that only Carson could manage, illustrate:

It is all wrong.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked.

He slid off the bed quickly. Thorns all around him black and glistening
but he passed through unhurt …

.

The roof

A wonderful description of life in Lima:

Ancash’s mother had the roof divided into living,
sleeping and horticultural areas.
Beside the water tank was where guests slept. Next to that was ‘Ancash’s room,’
an area bordered on one side by the clothesline,
where Ancash had neatly arranged his T-shirts on hangers, and on the other side
by a scarred highboy inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Beside the highboy was the library. Here were two sofas and a bookcase packed
with books. On the writing desk stood
piles of paper weighted down with tins of tobacco and a gooseneck reading lamp
that plugged into a cracked extension cord
running across the desk and over the roof and down the ladder to the kitchen.
Ancash had made a ceiling of palm fronds
above the library. They moved and clicked in the wind like wooden tongues.
Next to the library was a squat structure
built of clear heavy plastic and some pieces of dismantled telephone booth.
Here Ancash’s mother grew a cash crop
of marijuana and herbs for cooking. She called it Festinito (‘Little Feast’)
and said it was her favorite place
in the world. Plaster figures of St. Francis and St. Rose of Lima were placed
encouragingly among the plants.
She herself slept next to the Little Feast on a cot piled high with bright blankets.

From Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Under the seams runs the pain

Geryon struggles on in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, grieving for the devastating loss of a lover. But we also learn about other aspects of his life. Like Carson herself (there are strong autobiographical references in this story), he is a linguist. And so, sat in a café in Buenos Aires, ‘he rummaged inside himself for Spanish phrases’. Yet what he found was that

German irregular verbs
were marching across his mind as the waiter drew up at his table and stood …

Two key issues that pervade the narrative are Geryon’s difficulties with self-acceptance (being red and endowed with wings, he is noticeably different from everyone else) and how he is perceived by others. Thus there is

the fear of ridicule,
to which everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated Geryon early in life …

as well as this telling dialogue with a woman he met in a bar:

Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.

One of his endearing character traits is a desperate need for order. As he enters a lecture room, we are told:

Geryon disliked a room without rows.
His brain went running back and forth over the disorder of desks trying to see
straight lines. Each time finding
an odd number it jammed then restarted.

On another occasion, he struggles when someone he has enjoyed a good conversation with leaves the bar, abandoning him to the company of virtual strangers.

Oh don’t go, thought Geryon who felt himself starting
to slide off the surface of the room
like an olive off a plate. When the plate attained an angle of thirty degrees
he would vanish into his own blankness.

And so:

Geryon subsided into his overcoat
letting the talk flow over him warm as a bath.

Once more, I am finding myself amazed at how well Carson captures the panic an introvert might face in a situation like that.

But loss and grief remain his main problems. In a conversation with another stranger the issue of emotionlessness or artaraxia comes up, which Geryon defines as ‘absence of disturbance’ but which so evidently eludes him. Whatever he does,

Under the seams runs the pain.

In his desire to come to terms with his struggle and life generally, he eventually takes up philosophy:

We would think ourselves continuous with the world if we did not have moods.
It is state-of-mind that discloses to us
(Heidegger claims) that we are beings who have been thrown into something else.
Something else than what?
Geryon leaned his hot forehead against the filthy windowpane and wept.
Something else than this hotel room

Geryon sat on his bed in the hotel room pondering the cracks and fissures
of his inner life. …

Yet Geryon did not want
to become one of those people
who think of nothing but their stores of pain. He bent over the book on his knees.
Philosophic Problems.
‘… I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it.
But this separation of consciousness
is recognized only after a failure of communication, and our first movement is
to believe in an undivided being between us ….’

Carson so brilliantly exposes the autobiographical dimension that inheres in our work and study. Geryon, for obvious reasons, is particularly intrigued by the notion of redness. More generally though he is concerned with perception (how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others), consciousness and the impossibility of communication.

His reading also leads him to explore the nature of depression:

‘Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.’ He was about to turn the page for more help …

Yet again, Carson offers such an intriguing perspective in these lines. There are quite a few fascinating angles here, but I particularly love the final words, ‘he was about to turn the page for more help’.

And then the inevitable happens …

Enter Herakles

Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.

Thus opens the next chapter in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is entitled ‘Change’. First though, still a twelve-year old, Geryon meets Herakles:

Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.

‘One of those moments that is the opposite of blindness’. These are the kinds of phrases I so admire in Carson’s work.

Having become a teenager, Geryon acts his age:

He had recently relinquished speech.

His mother can only resort to irony:

Maybe I’ll just keep talking
and if I say anything intelligent you can take a picture of it. She inhaled.

Geryon had taken up photography, while his mother wants to know about his new friend:

So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?
Can I tell you, thought Geryon.
Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot
about art. We have good discussions.

Carson’s story touches on many subjects. One of them is the issue of sexual awakening, a problematic one for Geryon, largely due, of course, to the abuse suffered at the hands of his brother:

Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. He was sixteen. Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him.

Tell me, said Geryon and he intended to ask him, Do people who like sex
have a question about it too?
but the words came out wrong – Is it true you think about sex every day?

All the while he is deeply affected by Herakles: ‘Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body’ ‘His voice washed Geryon open’ ‘Staring at him Geryon felt his soul move in his side’.

There are lovely descriptions of his behaviour, that of a true introvert:

Why do you have your jacket over your head?
……………………………………
Can’t hear you Geryon. The jacket shifted. Geryon peered out. I said sometimes
I need a little privacy.

He is still working on his autobiography, which has progressed from the sculpture work he did as a child to producing a photographic essay.

This was when Geryon liked to plan
his autobiography, in that blurred state
between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul.

I can relate to that description of the early morning as a time ‘when too many intake valves are open in the soul’. That he worked on his autobiography ‘from the age of five to the age of forty-four’ also resonates with me. As I have said on the ‘Story’ page, quoting Walter Brueggemann, our ‘story must be told, tested, and retold countless times’ as part of our ongoing attempt to make sense of our lives.

There is a wonderful moment when Geryon catches the arm of Herakles’ grandmother, which ‘was like a handful of autumn’. Her voice in turn is likened to ‘old coals’.

Geryon gets lovesick, which Carson again captures beautifully. Having come home with a t-shirt his mother hasn’t seen before, she wants to know where he got it from.

Herakles gave it – and here Geryon had meant
to slide past the name coolly
but such a cloud of agony poured up his soul he couldn’t remember
what he was saying.

Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul.
Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.
Buckets of water sloshed from sky
to roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.

Rain lashing the kitchen window
sent another phrase
of Herakles’ chasing across his mind.

The chapter that introduces Geryon’s lovesickness is entitled ‘Fruit Bowl’. There is much that could be said about it, especially as the motif of the fruit bowl is an important and a recurring one, having already played a significant part in connection with Geryon’s fraught relationship with his brother. Once again though you will just have to read for yourselves.

Then the inevitable happens: Herakles ends the relationship.

I want you to be free.
Don’t want to be free want to be with you. Beaten but alert Geryon organized all
his inside force to suppress this remark.

‘Tunnel’ is where we leave Geryon for now, suffering, as he is, the consequences of ‘the human custom of wrong love’, as Carson puts it.