Contemporary Verse Novels and Anne Carson’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, Selah Saterstrom’s THE PINK INSTITUTION, and C. A. Conrad’s THE BOOK OF FRANK

I’ve been reading and comparing Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. What these three books have in common (besides being among my top favorites) is that they offer, through short, fragmented sections, isolated snapshots of a family. It isn’t until the reader finishes the book (or perhaps we could call it an album) that s/he gains an overall sense of what these families are and how they operate. Additionally, these books are all verse novels; they deliver the pleasures of reading a novel while also paying an incredible amount of attention to sentences, lines, and syntax. There is as much to learn from these books’ white space (what’s left untold) as there is from the stories they do reveal.

For this post, I’m interested in the idea of family. All three books provide narrative from or about the child or children protagonist. It is the family that the child struggles against. For instance, Autobiography of Red provides this snapshot of little Geryon and his mother:

“Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon’s father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone. / They grinned at each other as night climbed ashore. Turned on all the lights / even in rooms they weren’t using. / Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast / cut into fingers for dipping. / Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice. / They took supper trays into the living room. / Geryon’s mother sat on the rug with magazines, cigarettes, and telephone. / Geryon worked beside her under the lamp. / He was gluing a cigarette to a tomato. [. . .] / He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair / and was gluing these to the top of the tomato. [. . . ] / She put her hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato. / And bending she kissed him once on each eye / then picked up her bowl of peaches from the tray and handed Geryon his. / Maybe next time you could / use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.”

What I love about this passage is we learn so much about Geryon, his creativity, his preoccupations while his mother is on the  phone. But we also learn about his mother. She doesn’t get mad, she encourages his little project, and it’s clear she loves and appreciates him. This is how, later, we understand why Geryon is so attached to her. And I love that so much about these characters is so clearly portrayed in such small sections (or chapters).

Now here’s the opening of The Book of Frank:

“when Frank was born / Father inspected the small package / the nurse handed him / / ‘but where’s my daughter’s cunt? / my daughter has no cunt!’ / / Mother leaned from the bed / ‘this is your awful son Dear / your son has no cunt’ / / ‘why doesn’t my son have a cunt!? / what has happened!? / what a WICKED world! / DARK! / and spinning / on its one / good leg!’

The next page is similarly disturbing:

“Frank hated the 9 miscarriages / kept in jars of formaldehyde / / Mother burped each one / / spooned peas against glass / / she rocked them all at once in her arms / no room for Frank / / ‘you are too big for a jar my child / you will betray me the rest of your life'”

In Conrad’s book, the mother figure is not the same gentle, caring creature as the mother in Carson’s. And in even fewer, shorter lines, we learn as much, possibly even more, about the mother in Conrad’s. She’s strange, she keeps jars of fetuses, she prefers them to her living child. Of course, this is assuming that Frank’s narration is trustworthy. But let’s just say it is, because these two opening poems (or chapters) are all the reader has to set the tone, pacing, and reliability of what follows. If these are the reader’s entrance into The Book of Frank, the reader must establish her own level of disbelief.

Then there is Saterstrom’s verse novel, which offers a different childhood perspective–that of daughters, not sons. Here is a poem (or chapter) titled “Dining Room”:

“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.'”

Here’s another poem (or chapter), titled “Doll,” which is about Willie and his relationship to his girls, this one also involving his wife:

“Aza had red hair and green eyes. Willie, Azalea, and the other children had dark hair and brown eyes. One day Willie came home from work early. Azalea was in the kitchen making biscuits. Aza was playing dolls. She was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall by the gas heater. Willie poured a drink. He said, ‘Well Azalea you can sigh a breath of relief. I had Aza’s blood tested and she’s mine.’ Aza’s head fell back, hitting the wall, causing her long braids to fall into the grates of the gas heater. They went up in flames, then caught her whole head on fire. As Azalea hit her head to extinguish the fire, a layer of dust settled over the face of the child.”

Family, whether we like it or not, is so often a recurring theme in the novels we read, whether prose-oriented or in verse. Certainly, because so many of us are familiar with family life, this is a useful way for difficult, or unfamiliar, texts to invite and introduce readers into the world of the book, the story, the characters. If much of the plot centers around family, readers should be able to understand those plot elements and turns. If most of the characters are part of the family, readers should be able to sympathize (or not) with them. If the setting is located in the realm of domesticity (dining room, kitchen, etc.), then readers should be at once familiar with these settings.

Family, then, seems an excellent trope, or theme, to write about–not just in those traditional novels about family (like Little Women or Heidi or The Corrections) but also, and especially, for novels that are situated in the strange, the unfamiliar (like verse novels, or hybrids).

And for teaching purposes, it seems that an intro to literature course centered around various books about families might not be a bad way to go. Family is something almost everyone understands, and if these many different kinds of literatures about family offer students a point of entry, then all the better for the professors’ in-class discussions.

6 thoughts on “Contemporary Verse Novels and Anne Carson’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, Selah Saterstrom’s THE PINK INSTITUTION, and C. A. Conrad’s THE BOOK OF FRANK

  1. This is great, Molly, and I’m glad that you posted it roughly the same time as I posted about Puig, because family is one of his central concerns in the novel and he certainly goes about it in unconventional ways. I like your emphasis on the fact that the strange and the familiar can exist together, maybe themselves forming a kind of hybrid. Because really, what family isn’t strange when examined up close, or maybe from a distance is the key…what seems natural only seems strange when one is, however subtly, estranged.

  2. Molly, thanks for thoughtful piece of work. I was especially pleased to see your appreciation of Carson’s RED, which remains a wonder, grounding the pre-Christian in the mundane & contemporary in new ways, setting itself apart from earlier varieties like John Barth’s.

    Family, as a theme, also begs for a mention of what John & Greg are up to here on BO, just now, reading Caponegro’s COMPLEXITIES OF INTIMACY. Recommended!

    Points of discussion? Well, isn’t HEIDI an adventure story, about escape & overcoming, rather than a family story? The parents are dead, & the girl’s largely alone. Oh, & wouldn’t Literature 101 need to consider a *variety* of themes? There’s great work on war, on death, on the life of the spirit & love outside the home, etc.

    • Hey, John, granted it that most books are going to be about many of those things, but I took Molly’s suggestion to be that by grounding the material in something literally and figuratively close to home, it might enable students to take more risks in terms of thinking about form/structure/language because they have one foot planted.

  3. Tim: I’ve only read Kiss of the Spider Woman. In a class about space–literal or otherwise. But yes, precisely, “what family isn’t strange when examined up close”!

    John: Love Carson! Yeah, I need to read Complexities. Sigh. And also, Heidi is absolutely a story about a girl searching for family, and finding it in her grandfather, the Alps, the old lady down the mountain, the brother-figure (Peter?), who is also I think a possible romantic figure. Oh, right, and there’s also the sister-figure (Clara?).

    Yes, a variety of themes is great, but when I taught my class on HOPE, the kids always knew that they could write a paper on hope in Scorch Atlas (other papers I got were about family, loss, nature), or hope in PUSH (other papers I got were about family, loss, obesity, the ghetto, the social welfare system, the GED and literacy rates in America), etc.

    Picking one theme, so that the kids always know they’ve got something to be thinking about in all the texts we read together, is useful for them. Even if those texts are also about any number of other things. They also like thinking, at the end of the term, that they’ve learned something new about this concept they thought they knew.

    For instance, in my HOPE class, on the first day they had to write about hope. All the free writes were sweet and innocent and optimistic and about love and etc. At the end of the term, their idea of hope had changed. It had become grittier, a necessary thing in times of grief, loss, sorrow, unhappiness, desperation.

    Two cents.

  4. Pingback: Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle « BIG OTHER

  5. Pingback: Contemporary Verse Novels: The Anxiety of Reading Poems and Kimiko Hahn’s THE UNBEARABLE HEART « BIG OTHER

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