It has taken me an outrageously long time to write this annotation. But here it is. I’m done. Sometimes it’s harder to write about the books that you love than about the ones you hated, even though it feels like it should be easy breezy.
Autobiography of Red annotation—On Endings
I have to admit (enthuse) that this was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m having a feeling of joy about this book so strong that I can’t sit down here and write about it without beginning with a few sentences (these few sentences) about how much I loved the book and how much I enjoyed the entire experience of reading it. I was truly awestruck in many places by Anne Carson’s language and imagery. It was the sort of book that I didn’t want to put down, but that I had to put down sometimes just to take a few breaths and to absorb what I had just read before I was ready to read a little bit more. As happens sometimes at the end of a book that I am fascinated by, I’ve been taking a few nibbles at researching Anne Carson and her writing. I’ve just borrowed her translation of Sappho’s fragments from the library, and also I’ve poked around on the internet a bit. I do this so that I can know more about the author and her writing and therefore feel that I own more of the possibilities of her book. I also do this so that the pleasurable experience of reading Autobiography of Red doesn’t have to come to an end quite yet.
And it is endings that I want to focus on as my small piece of critical thought, my Goddard annotation. One of the items that I found online while stretching out my reading experience was a casual review by another person who’d read this book. (By “casual” I mean that it wasn’t in a formally published medium like a magazine or newspaper.) The reviewer described Autobiography of Redas one of the best gay novels she had ever read, but then said that she didn’t like its ending because it moved away from the story of its main character, Geryon, to an abstract discussion of sight and blindness. I hadn’t really thought closely about the ending of the book before reading this, except to think that I didn’t want it to end at all. But I found it interesting to compare my experience with this other reader.
Autobiography of Red is a framed narrative. That is, the book starts with a discussion of the ancient poet Stesichoros, moves away from Stesichoros to the story of Geryon the red monster, then returns to Stesichoros in the last section of the book. Actually, the book is made up of seven sections. “Autobiography of Red,” the sixth of these, could be described as the “main” part of the book—it is by far the longest; its title is the title of the entire volume; it contains the story arc that I think makes this book into the novel it claims to be on the front cover—but Geryon’s story is not the only part of the book, as my anonymous reviewer seemed to want. And I find that I do have to disagree with her assessment of the book’s ending. I didn’t feel disappointed by the move away from Geryon’s story. Instead, I felt that Carson’s inclusion of the six shorter sections of the book made it a much richer experience for me as a reader than it would have been without them, and that the book needed that last section to complete it.
Or perhaps “needed” is too strong a word, but I do feel that the book is elevated and enhanced by that last section. So, in other words, Autobiography of Red needs its last section in order to reach the highest level of its potential. Or maybe I, as the reader I am, needed the last section to take me from the intense emotion of the story to a wider level of understanding. This wider understanding allowed me to see the book as a whole, and it also buttressed the intense emotions, supported the story of Geryon, and thus helped sustain the wonder of the book for me. I’m talking architectural structure here. The framing parts of the book build a platform, they raise the middle part of the book and hold it in a raised position.
I think I’ve probably exhausted that metaphor for now. But before I completely run out of space in my annotation, I want to talk a little about the specifics of the last section of Autobiography of Red. The last section of the book is a fictional interview between Stesichoros and an anonymous interviewer, who I can possibly imagine as Anne Carson herself. Stesichoros was a real ancient poet, and he did actually write about the monster Geryon within his version of the myth of Hercules’s labors. In Autobiography of Red, however, Stesichoros serves both the role of a nonfiction historical figure at the root of the story and that of a fictionalized character within the book. In this last section he is definitely fictionalized—he mentions the year 1907, for instance. I began to see the fictional Stesichoros as a blend between an ancient poet and Carson, the modern poet, and I read the interview in the last section as sort of a conversation between Anne Carson and herself, playing both roles, evaluating the book and the story, taking one last chance to bring up important ideas and images.
I found this to be a perfect way to close the book, because it opened up contemplation for me. When the Stesichoros says, “it is red that I like and there is a link between geology and character,” I immediately began to revisit the many scenes in the book where landscape plays an important role in the story. I love endings that circle me back into the thick of a book. I think that a good ending should have some control, and guide the reader’s thoughts somewhat towards the most important ideas of the book, but it should also be open, allowing the reader to find her own exit and sending the reader off with questions that are not easily answered and that are enjoyable to think over. Anne Carson succeeded in writing a good ending to this book. She wrote a fabulous book from cover to cover!