By Gabe Garcia-Leeds, student work study assistant
In Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson reconstructs an ancient Greek myth, Herakles’ murder of a winged red monster, into a vivid, dreamlike journey through youth, love, and the unease of existence. Surreal, tragic, and disarmingly intimate, Carson invites us into a world full of poetry and color, turbulent and brimming with volcanic energy.
The original myth goes as follows: Greek hero Herakles, envious of the monster Geryon’s red cattle, travels to an island and slaughters Geryon and his small red dog. Carson refigures this myth into a deeply personal coming-of-age story, exploring trauma, depression, and the troubles of love. Geryon’s world is ripe with a very visceral darkness, alternating between moments of bitterness and profound beauty.
This novel is composed entirely in poetic verse. Operating outside the confines of conventional literary style, Carson allows her writing to transcend language. Like a labor of mad alchemy, she transmutes words into something electric. In Autobiography of Red, Carson displays a masterful ability to coax images and emotions from mere words on a page. In Geryon’s world, one wakes up to “a soiled white Saturday morning in Lima,” surrounded by the “intolerable red assault of grass.” Autobiography of Red is a fascinating read not only because of the timeless story it tells, but also for its inventive poetic structure and the unique, singular voice of Anne Carson.
I am always interested in reading books by authors who have an outside-of-the-box approach to writing. The kind who radically shake up the rules in a way that pushes my understanding of what a story can be into new territory. As soon as I picked up Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both for the first time, I was immediately struck by her intriguing ability to format a novel in a way that I had never experienced before.
Beginning on the first page, it became evident that this Man Booker Prize shortlist finalist is highly ingenuitive and eloquently executed. There is a note in the very beginning explaining that the novel is broken up into two interchangeable sections. It is then up to the audience to decide which order to read first. Half of the books are published with George’s story as the first half, while the remaining copies begin with Francesco. If you prefer a strong personal narrative, I would suggest beginning with George’s half, a spunky 16-year-old coping with the sudden death of her mother. If you enjoy a historical mystery, begin with Francesco, a bold fifteenth-century Italian fresco painter navigating the afterlife.
As a result of the twists and turns driven by a non-linear plot design, How to Be Both is tricky to describe without spoiling the mystery and marvel of it all. Main themes that are highlighted within the dueling narratives of Smith’s novel include the timeless importance of art and the artist in society, an honest interpretation of loss including the grief that follows, as well as the open exploration of gender and sexuality. With one half of the story set mainly in contemporary England, and the other in historic Italy, the main characters are separated by hundreds of years in two seemingly disparate worlds. As the pieces slowly come together in whatever order you choose to read, it becomes evident that their lives have been so cleverly intertwined without the reader initially having any idea how or why.