Jason Guriel seems to be performing an elaborate cop-out in “Autobiography of Reader,” his review of Anne Carson’s Red Doc>. While not entirely negative, the review levels some heavy criticism against Carson and her latest book. Guriel saves his fiercest displeasure, though, for her fans, whom he claims are so drunk on Carson they let her get away with overwriting, tired clichés and allusions that are just “interchangeable signifier[s] of hefty, high culture.”
Those elements of Carson’s style could anchor a review. Guriel cuts his into seven short sections, allowing him to approach his topic from multiple angles, but also to evade the point. Guriel does the latter when he devotes a whole section to dismissing Autobiography of Red as a collection of “set pieces” without “characters you especially cared about” that is like a “highbrow Hellboy” for maturing Anne Rice and Neil Gaiman fans.
For Guriel, “The Glass Essay” is her best. It does not require her critic-fans to “explain away the longeur between her better lines,” like Autobiography and Red Doc. “The Glass Essay” is certainly a classic, but Guriel assumes too much in his critique of Autobiography. If, like me, you do care about Carson’s characters – if you can picture the snowflakes falling on a young Geryon’s eyelashes before school, or when he tells his twisted older brother that “cage” is his favorite weapon – the entirety of Guriel’s second section is meaningless, because we disagree about Autobiography of Red.
It’s fine—great even—to disagree, but because Guriel’s opinion of that earlier book is an essential support of his Red Doc> critique, his inability to properly support that opinion renders his review incomplete. Letting that slide, though, the review carries more weight than it initially seems.
Each section captures a complaint about Carson’s work. They are, in order: the form is just a “marketing strategy,” “flightier impulses” go unchecked, there are too many “clichés,” her allusions are stuck-up placeholders, she is loved because she makes it easy for her readers to feel smart and deep, and lesser passages about writing encourage her readers to write (which is bad). Finally, Guriel suggests that parts of Red Doc> “hint at some better book,” but that that “Sisyphean figure — the Anne Carson fan” is too blindly devoted to demand or expect that book.
I’m a Carson fan not yet sold on Red Doc>, and I can see Guriel’s main point. Carson’s work is uneven, and I’m not sure why this doesn’t bother me. That needs to be discussed. Her form, which Guriel brushes past, also deserves a hard look (Michael Lista does better in that regard, more on that later). But Guriel addresses these issues with too blunt an instrument, partly because he spends too much time on her readership, which is beside the point.
Perhaps Guriel takes pleasure in needling Anne Carson’s cultish followers, but a book should be judged on its merits, not its fans. This reminds me of kids I knew in high school who secretly liked Dave Matthews but wanted to separate themselves from the pajama-pant-wearing fanboys who flocked to his shows. I’m not saying Gruiel secretly likes Carson’s work. He’s wrong about Autobiography of Red, but he’s allowed to be, and he might have a point with Red Doc>. He should focus on the work itself though. Sure, wearing pajama pants in public is stupid, but what’s that got to do with #41, really?