This is an odd, original, remarkable book. I didn’t know anything about it when I picked it up–let’s be real, I was just looking for a short book so I can finish my Cannonball in time! And it was unlike anything I’ve read this year.
This short (160 pages!) novel in verse is Anne Carson’s modern re-telling of a Greek myth that was originally told by Stesichoros, a Sicilian Greek of the early classical era. In the original, Heracles murders the red-winged monster Geryon and steals his magical red cattle. In Carson’s modern re-telling, Geryon retains his red hue and wings, but he’s an artistic, abused boy who falls in love with Herakles, a lover who steals Geryon’s heart rather than his cattle, and leaves him heartbroken. Geryon finds solace in his art, photography, working on his autobiography, a project he started at five years old, and gradually finds his identity outside of his relationship with Herakles.
The framing of the story is remarkable. It’s a layered portrait of the artist as winged, red monster — is that how he’s learned to think of himself? Is it a coping mechanism, or is his monster-hood actually his art, hidden as wings under his overcoat? It’s all of the above, because each of us has felt like a monster at some point, and even the monsters among us have been bruised by love, and you can’t keep that monstrous art — or love — inside, it has to come out and be free at the end.
And indeed, every chapter subtly explored the concepts of monsters, the monsters of love, sexuality, identity, art…but the narrative was grounded. There’s a story arc, and the poetry feels modern and real. So I didn’t find it pretentious at all (remarkably!) However, the introductory and final chapters were jarringly out of place to me. The book opens with an essay about the historical framework of Stesichoros’ writing. I found this, honestly, pretty boring and not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book. The final chapter, too, seemed superfluous–I wanted to stop reading when Geryon’s story ended, and I didn’t need the epilogue. However, now that I “get it” I definitely want to read this whole thing again–I know I missed a lot in the first reading.