Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red
As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". We only have a few sections left--keep an eye out for those over the next week.
Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.
--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?
Geryon takes a series of photographs: one of four people sitting at a table, one of his pant leg, one of a couple of burros, one of a cooked guinea pig arranged on a platter; while up in the mountains of Huaraz Geryon gets incredibly high and experiences a profound sense of isolation & a desire for intimacy; while traversing the mountainous region Geryon also experiences a good deal of hemorrhoid pain; after a brief interaction with the military police the whole crew is invited over to the soldier's bunkhouse for lunch, where they learn that the nearby volcano is active & hear a folktale about bakers using magma as fire for their ovens.
Volcanoes! Finally! Are we to the point where some of that stuff starts to resolve?
Almost, my friends! We will see Geryon and a volcano together up close and personal very soon.
Is Geryon a good photographer?
Hard to tell from the information available, but it seems to me like he has at least some talent for the discipline.
Should we read the "Photograph:..." sections as snapshots? How does these sections or moments vary from the ones that were thematically titled ("Justice") or more narratively driven ("Sex Question")?
These final sections are more charged than many of the previous ones--their density, their luminosity, their thematic implications start to skyrocket as we get closer to the novel's end, so there's probably a value in thinking of them as literary photographs in a way that the earlier sections maybe weren't. Carson also plays around with the "Photographs:..." device a little bit though, as we will see in a few days when we finish out the novel.
It is a photograph of four people sitting around a table with hands in front of them. (136)
In this, the final stretch of the novel-in-verse, we get to see more of Geryon in action as a photographer--though interestingly, we spend almost no time watching him directly engage in the process of photography. Rather, 6 out of the final 7 sections start by giving us a photograph's title & a short description before leaping into a scene around or adjacent to the creation of the photograph. There's a willful flatness to the way each is introduced: it is a photograph of..., and there's some interesting movement going on (should we read these moments of Geryon's life as photos, as snapshots?). The sections addressed in today's post seem straightforwardly to reference literal photographs the character took, but that relationship gets a little more complicated as we move forward. It's an interesting parallel sequence in part because of how Carson plays around with the implications of the structure.
& I also love the strangeness of position at work: around a table with hands in front of them, not their hands but just hands. Strangeness makes sense, of course, given that Geryon was extremely high for this sequence.
Coldness was planing the sides off his vision leaving a narrow canal down which
the shock--Geryon sat
on the floor suddenly. (136)
Two things I noticed: first, the classic use of the em-dash for an abrupt or sudden break in the relationship between syntax and psychology (a relationship we might sometimes take for granted, living in an environment in which a kind of close, psychologically-embedded 3rd person narration is standard, normal, familiar, default). We get a syntactical replication of sides planing off and vision narrowing down through the absence of punctuation (no comma joining vision and leaving) while the sheer length of the line draws us deeper down, deeper into that same canal--but then the sudden, abrupt movement (tacked on with the dash) shocks us out and back to a more distant viewpoint.
Secondly, the abstracted agency of coldness is a fascinating choice; Carson nominalizes the adjective cold as coldness (the more rarefied, theoretical framing for the sensation, maybe) rather than rendering it as the cold which was planing the sides off his vision. Would be interesting to see somebody with more linguistic chops than me do a kind of miniature corpus analysis on how she plays with and slides around categories (adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, possessives turned into adjectives, etc etc etc).
I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. (136)
A very amusing sequence of register shifts here, alternating between direct reports of Geryon's expansive, celestial, very very high internal monologue and a narrative position both empathetic, understanding, and a little wry about the profound nature of those deep thoughts.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. (136)
Wrongness is another interesting abstraction, equally active and menacing as the coldness we saw above. I love the rhythm and pace of the two actions, and how that manifests syntactically. The feeling of wrongness (mostly like pot-driven anxiety or dread, at least in part) is rendered through a full, fleshy clause with a prepositional phrase and a simile embedded within--it draws out the sentence and with it the sensation itself. But then the actual physical action is short, simple, sudden: just a pronoun and a verb. I imagine this is a nice encapsulation of the experience our stoned mythic protagonist is having.
Each time the car bounces him up and down Geryon utters a little red cry. (137)
Geryon's hot apple icepicks
all the way up his anus to his spine. (137)
Geryon's hemorrhoids are an amusing detail for sure, but I also love the strangeness of the description to these two bits. Red cry swiftly reminds us that we're dealing with a mythic subject who has previously been established as ontologically co-extensive (at least in part) with a particular adjective, but there's an endearing pathos to this mythic dimension coming up again in the context of his searing hemorrhoids.
A few lines later we get hot apple icepicks all the way up his anus to his spine, which is another example of Carson's talent for odd-yet-exact description (inflamed rectal veins as a hot apple is frankly an amazing conceit). Icepicks is also an interesting move in that it takes an object and converts it into a verb which is used metaphorically to describe something relatively far removed from the original object's intended action (it would be more boring if something were to icepick all the way up a glacier, yeah? but as a metaphor for hemorrhoids--now we're talking!).
A greasy grin passes around the soldiers. (139)
Struck here by the use of passes around to in reference to a single grin. Of course, all of the soldiers are breaking out into grins more or less at once, as a collective, but Carson chooses to render the visual experience of that as a single thing being shared collectively. An interesting way of emphasizing how a collective or group can operate in some ways as a single beast.
In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig
they all stand reflected
pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties. (140)
We've seen this type of reflected shot before, during a memory of Geryon coming home from a high school dance and cleaning up the kitchen while eyeing himself in the kettle. The heavy emphasis on eye here recalls that as well as all the photography stuff (a lens is a kind of eye, after all), but that last line where the eye empties is also setting us up for some action later down the road.
Take a noun, preferably an object or tool, and turn it into a verb (see: icepick becoming icepicks). Use it in a context (metaphoric, most likely) far removed from the original contexts of the object (see: the things icepicking are hemorrhoids).
Screwing with Communal Actions
Re-cast individual behavior in a group such that the individual behavior achieves a kind of collective quality (see: rather than the soldiers individually grinning a grin passed around the group).
Wry Register Shifts
Alternate between sentences reporting thoughts (your own, somebody else's, an imaginary interlocutors, whatever you like) and sentences with essayistic or narrative commentary on those thoughts (see: that sequence where Geryon is stoned and feeling things deeply and in a profound way).
Adjective, Noun, and -ness
When describing a force that can exist in either adjective or noun form (see: cold as adjective versus the cold, dark as adjective verse the dark) substitute in a nominalized form ending in -ness (coldness, darkness, etc) and see how that changes the sense of the passage.
Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.