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Literature / Autobiography of Red

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A volcano is not a mountain like others.

A 1998 novel in verse by Anne Carson. It tells the story of Geryon, a boy who is red, has wings, has a whirlwind teenage romance (and miserable breakup) with a guy named Herakles, becomes a photographer, and travels to South America where he runs into Herakles and Herakles' new lover, Ancash. From Ancash, Geryon learns why he is red and has wings. (It involves him being a Chosen One. Kind of.)

Geryon and Herakles are, of course, originally from Classical Mythology, where Geryon is the giant, monstrous keeper of a herd of red cattle. Herakles steals the cattle — killing Geryon in the process — as one of his labors. Carson brings up that version of the story in some prefatory matter concerning the poet Stesichoros, who wrote the first sympathetic portrayal of Geryon in the sixth century BCE. This section of the book also discusses a separate story about Stesichoros: he is supposed to have been struck blind by Helen for insulting her in a poem, then had his sight restored after writing a palinode.

Autobiography of Red was followed in 2013 by a Denser and Wackier (but also somewhat darker) sequel, Red Doc>.

Autobiography of Red provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: Geryon, Herakles, Ancash, Lazer . . . Maria . . . Marguerite . . .
  • Alternate Continuity: The book contains two mutually-exclusive stories about Geryon and Herakles, one in the front matter and one in the main body.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Geryon is red.
  • Appease the Volcano God: Subverted. According to Ancash, the villagers of Jucu used to throw people into the nearby volcano — not as sacrifices, but because occasionally someone would return from the experience with "all their weaknesses burned away."
  • Arc Words: During the Argentinian interlude, Geryon repeatedly asks: "What is time made of?"
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: Subverted. There are many Germans in Buenos Aires — but they are all soccer players (or psychoanalysts, or cigarette girls).
  • Backstory Horror: Early in the book, we hear about Geryon being sexually abused as a young child. The narrative never mentions it again, and the overall tone of the book is gentler than one might expect after a revelation like that.
  • Bad Boy: Herakles is a sub-delinquent type, with a fondness for graffiti, shoplifting, and leather. Geryon finds him wildly attractive.
  • Big Brother Bully: Geryon has an older brother who, when they are children, insults, undermines, and sexually abuses him.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • The snippets of Gratuitous German on Geryon's postcards seem to be tailored to the recipients. In particular, Zum verlorenen Hören ("For lost hearing") seems a peculiarly poignant thing to write to one's former professor.
    • Icchantikas sounds like Mayincatec gibberish, but actually comes from a Sanskrit term used in Mahayana Buddhism to refer to someone who is incapable of achieving enlightenment.
  • Birthmark of Destiny: Geryon's unusual appearance turns out to be a sign that he is a Yazcamac.
  • Came Back Strong: A variant (involving unlikely survival rather than a full-blown Back from the Dead situation) is predicted to be what will happen to Geryon after his descent into the volcano. What it actually does to him ends up being somewhat vague.
  • Camera Fiend: Geryon, especially late in the book, spends quite a bit of time either taking photographs, planning to take photographs, or thinking up titles for the photographs he is taking or planning to take.
  • Chain of Corrections: Herakles and Geryon go through a brief one of these:
    You know you have to pass an examination to get into the electricians' union
    in Buenos Aires but all the exam questions
    are about the constitution. What do you mean the human constitution?
    No the constitution of Argentina
    except the last one. The last constitution? No the last question on the exam—
  • The Chanteuse: The singer in the tango bar. A somewhat less glamorous version, if only because Geryon isn't a fan of the music.
    It was a typical tango song and she had the throat full of needles you need to sing it.
  • Chekhov's Volcano:
    • Subverted with the volcano on Hades, which doesn't erupt within the timeframe of the story.
    • Played more-or-less straight with Icchantikas: it doesn't actually erupt, but it's a lot more active than Ancash originally implied, and it becomes directly plot-relevant at the end.
  • Chosen One: Geryon, as a Yazcamac, is assumed to be fated to become an immortal wise man.
  • Climactic Volcano Backdrop: Subverted. Geryon apparently does fly into a volcano and emerge unscathed, but it's an Offscreen Moment of Awesome.
  • Color Motifs: Several. In particular, yellow seems to represent things that pass out of Geryon's life:
    • Herakles dreams of Geryon reviving a dead yellow bird and then freeing it.
    • The yellowbeard and Lazer (who wears a yellow scarf) are people Geryon socializes with for a day, with no follow-up or ongoing acquaintance.
    • Though it isn't directly stated in Autobiography, Red Doc> makes it clear that Herakles is blond. The way his path keeps crossing with and reseparating from Geryon's is a huge part of both books.
  • Coming of Age Story: The story follows Geryon from childhood into his early twenties, dealing especially with his First Love and first breakup, and with his development as an artist.
  • Coming-Out Story: Unexpectedly for a Queer Romance involving adolescents, this is averted. Geryon's mother instantly intuits the nature of his relationship with Herakles, and accepts it without batting an eye.
  • Disappeared Dad: Herakles and Ancash both suffer from this. Geryon's dad is present, but doesn't play any part in the story.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Geryon and Ancash are momentarily fascinated by two people in furs and high heels, who they suddenly realize are men.
  • Eye Motifs: There are frequent references to eyes, especially Geryon's eyes, as a sort of conduit to the outer world. This echoes the Framing Device, which discusses Stesichoros being blinded and then having his sight restored.
  • Film the Hand: A variant, in some ways closer to Camera Obscurer. One of the pictures in the Photo Montage sequence towards the end is "a close-up photograph of Geryon's left pant leg just below the knee." The backstory is that Geryon was about to photograph some soldiers (which would presumably not have been a good idea) and Ancash's mother pushed the camera down at the last second.
  • Fire Is Red: Geryon, who is red, frequently thinks and feels using fire imagery.
  • First Love: Herakles seems to be this to Geryon, which leads to Geryon taking their breakup much harder than Herakles probably anticipated.
  • Framing Device: The Stesichoros matter isn't quite a frame story, but it serves a similar function of providing context and perspective to the main narrative.
  • Freakiness Shame: Geryon is embarrassed by his wings and often hides them under a trenchcoat. Much later, Ancash's admiration of them sets off the final subplot of Geryon's descent into the volcano.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings: Averted in canon, as the form of Geryon's wings is never directly addressed.note  Fan Art tends to interpret them as birdlike.
  • Gotta Have It, Gonna Steal It: Herakles takes a shine to the wooden tiger figure on a merry-go-round and convinces the other two to help him steal it.
  • Gratuitous German: The "bits of Heidegger" Geryon scribbles on his postcards home. For that matter, the place he's writing from is called the Café Mitwelt.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: A rainstorm occurs halfway through the book, while Geryon is still reeling from Herakles breaking up with him. In a variant of this trope, it isn't so much an Empathic Environment as it is Irony: the storm is portrayed as dynamic and forceful, in contrast to Geryon's inertia.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: Herakles is a Bad Boy type and wears a black leather jacket.
  • It Was with You All Along: Implied. Ancash says that the Yazcamac return as red Winged Humanoids. Geryon was a red Winged Humanoid to begin with; in a way, he can already be identified as a Yazcamac. He decides to fly into the volcano anyway. He doesn't seem dramatically different afterward.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: In Argentina, Geryon briefly mistakes a tuxedo-clad female tango singer for a man.
  • Love at First Sight: Geryon and Herakles.
    . . . and there it was one of those moments
    that is the opposite of blindness.
    The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice.
  • Love Triangle: Geryon, Herakles, and Ancash. At first, Herakles and Ancash seem to be mutually involved and Geryon is one-sidedly attracted to Herakles. Later, Geryon briefly becomes reinvolved with Herakles, which sends Ancash into a fit of jealousy.
  • The Magazine Rule: Lampshaded when Geryon looks over the magazines at a newsstand:
    Architecture, geology, surfing,
    weight lifting, knitting, politics, sex. Balling from Behind caught his eye
    (a whole magazine devoted to this?
    issue after issue? year after year?)
  • Magical Minority Person: Ancash has shades of this, being a quechuaphone Peruvian who serves up traditional wisdom for the benefit of the anglophone North American protagonist.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes: The main story is all in novelistic (though versified) third person limited, but the front and back matter use several other modes, including a nonfiction-style prose introduction to Stesichoros, fragmentary poems in Stesichoros' voice, and a section made up of extracts from other ancient authors.
  • Mythology Gag: More literally mytholgical than most. The version of his autobiography that Geryon writes in elementary school is basically a rewrite of the version of the Geryoneis found in the front matter, complete with red cattle, red dog, and a murderous Herakles. (That last bit is all the more interesting because this continuity's version of Herakles hasn't even shown up yet.)
  • Never Trust a Title: The words Autobiography and Red are both a bit off-center. The book is not presented as an autobiography (although Geryon does attempt to produce one in-story). And, while Geryon is red, it isn't his name and nobody calls him by it.
  • Newhart Phone Call: A couple of examples, colored by the fact that the entire story is told from Geryon's point of view.
    • Played straight early on, when Geryon's mother calls her friend, Maria.
    • Zig-zagged later. Geryon gets a call from Herakles, and both sides of the conversation are provided. But in the next chapter Geryon calls his mother and we only hear his side.
  • Nominal Importance: Played with. Apart from the central trio, the only named characters are minor ones, such as Maria (Geryon's mother's friend, who never appears onscreen), or Lazer (who has only one scene — part of which is devoted to him explaining his name). More important characters such as Geryon's mother and brother go unnamed.
  • No Name Given: Several characters, but special note goes to "the yellowbeard," who is never called anything else even though the narrative seems, briefly, to be teasing him as a Love Interest for Geryon.
  • no punctuation is funnier sometimes more evocative too
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Geryon flying into the volcano at the end of the story.
  • Old Flame: Herakles and Geryon become involved again after running into each other in South America.
  • Orphaned Punchline: The joke told in Spanish by the philosophers, which Geryon fails to get. All the reader is told is that it involves monks and soup and that the punchline includes the phrase "bad milk."
  • Our Monsters Are Different: A rare application of this trope to a single being. In Classical Mythology Geryon is a red giant with an unusual number of heads and/or limbs, and sometimes with wings, who lives somewhere west of here. In Dante he is a huge, flying Mix-and-Match Critter who lives in Hell. Here he is an ordinary-sized Winged Humanoid, red, who lives in Canada.
  • Perspective Flip: This story builds on the sympathetic portrait of Geryon that originated with Stesichoros, and takes it a step further by making the situation Lighter and Softer so that Geryon and Herakles can both be sympathetic at the same time.
  • Photo Montage: Evoked non-visually late in the book, in a series of seven chapters/poems all formed on the same pattern: a title including the word "Photographs," a one-line description of the picture, and a narration of the circumstances in which it was taken. Subverted in the seventh of the series, "Photographs: #1748," in which the description is, "It is a photograph he never took, no one here took it." Since this is the chapter in which Geryon flies into the volcano, and he apparently does take a photograph, the negating description recalls the Stesichorean palinode.
  • Queer Romance: The troubled romance between Geryon and Herakles is a big part of the plot.
  • Rambling Old Man Monologue: Herakles' grandmother has one of these. She starts off talking about the physiology of drowning, which brings up the time she met Virginia Woolf, which brings up a dog she once had (which drowned), which brings up her acquaintanceship with Sigmund Freud... (She does dial it back once Geryon asks her a specific question.)
  • Rape as Backstory: Young Geryon is repeatedly molested by his brother early in the book.
  • Shirtless Scene: Herakles has one on the rooftop in Lima. There's a striking image of him eating a papaya and letting the juice run down his chest.
  • Shout-Out: There are repeated references to Emily Dickinson.
    • One of her poems, #1748, is used as an epigraph.
    • Herakles and Ancash are working on a documentary about her.
    • Geryon gets a line from one of her letters stuck in his head.
    • The title of the penultimate poem, "Photographs: #1748," echoes the epigraph.
  • Spooky Photographs: A (probably) non-literal version: Geryon takes a picture of Herakles which appears to him as "the face / of an old man . . . a photograph of the future."
  • Tastes Like Purple: Midway through the story, Geryon is revealed to be a synesthete by means of a flashback to a school project that he did about "the noise the colors make." This sheds retroactive light on things like the "red" smell of grass from the first poem.
  • Time Skip: Eight presumably uneventful years elapse between the breakup and Geryon's trip to South America.
  • Unnamed Parent: Geryon's and Ancash's mothers, and Herakles' grandmother, are all left nameless despite appearing in several scenes apiece.
  • Viewer Gender Confusion: An odd in-universe case. When Geryon gets a job at a library, he pays so little attention to his co-workers that when he gets home he can't remember whether they are men or women. His mother guesses they are mostly men, based on his photographs of their shoes.
  • Visible Silence: Very late in the book, Geryon tries to strike up a conversation with Ancash, who's mad at him for sleeping with Herakles. Ancash's non-responses are represented by rows of twelve dots.
  • Weirdness Censor: Geryon may feel like a monster, but we don't see a lot of people treating him as one: he seems to draw surprisingly little attention for someone who is completely red and has wings. It's possible that these traits are, at least initially, Invisible to Normals; whether this changes after he emerges from the volcano is not clear.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Total known facts about Geryon's hometown:
    • It is on an island, which Geryon once describes as "an island in the Atlantic called the Red Place."note 
    • It's near a beach where American money and "a piece of an old war helmet" are not unusual things to find.
    • On the other end of the island — seven hours away by bus — are a town called Hades and an active volcano.
    • Geryon has a North American accent but denies being from the U.S.
  • Winged Humanoid: Geryon. His wings are apparently small enough to hide easily, but big enough to fly with.
  • With a Friend and a Stranger: In the final section of the story, there is the trio of Geryon, Herakles (Geryon's Old Flame), and Ancash (stranger to Geryon, newish Love Interest to Herakles).