Immaculate Imperfection


The cover of Wrong Norma

IT IS A FITTING IRONY that when trying to describe Anne Carson’s sensibility, one quickly hits the limits of language. To measure the breadth of her brain across her twenty or so books, one might acquiesce to hyphen-chic—as in, she is a poet-translator-scholar-of-ancient-Greek-essayist-visual-artist-playwright-maker-of-performances-and-dances—but such frantic stitching would fail to impart how seamlessly entwined her practices are. To distinguish her literary occupation from that of other authors, one might be tempted to conjure a new word via the dark arts of negation—she is an uncontainer of ideas, or she de-forms thought—but that would belittle her writing as merely an act of resistance where in fact her attention is simply turned elsewhere. One key to understanding this singular elsewhere of Carson’s might be gleaned from an interview with her and “the randomizer,” Robert Currie, her husband, sometimes collaborator, and consummate creative foil. As she describes their opposing approaches to work, she brings into focus the wider landscape that opens between them: “I have a limited number of arrows in my quiver, so I must take very careful aim and hit the target. Currie has an unlimited number of arrows and has never hit anything.” At this, one might wonder what happens when the very notion of a mark is challenged, ignored, or made obsolete for a writer of legendarily unbowing precision.

Carson’s latest, Wrong Norma, collects twenty-five poems, stories, and other writerly arrangements, some previously published, others new, printed side by side with her collages and drawings. Of the book’s peculiar title, she says: “The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them ‘wrong.’” Almost as though in response, the narrator of “1 = 1,” the story that opens the collection, asks: “What does that mean, fail it?” In this piece, an early morning lake swim prompts a series of bracing reflections on water and waterhood, and how a swimmer must try, stroke by stroke, to meet its incorruptible immediacy: “There is mental pressure to swim well and to use this water correctly.” The same could be said about life and how to navigate it, and Carson perfectly captures the chop of thought in sentences that peak, foam, and break, each in their own time. Meticulous observation is one propeller for cutting a path through it all; inquiry is another. In one of Wrong Norma’s delightfully wrong-er moves, Carson pastes, between many of the book’s pieces, texts typed on bits of paper on which a question is answered in different ways: 

how do you sustain morale during a long project 

by loosing track

how do you sustain morale during a long project 

put full faith in Ricky 

Ricky? As Carson offers, “Some questions don’t warrant a question mark,” which might be a quip about the redundancy of punctuation, or about the failure of inquiry to adequately meet the unknown. Is an answer all we can ask for? Framed another way: perhaps we don’t need to know Ricky, but instead need to know that we don’t know Ricky. Allow negative space its rightful place in a mind—say, that space between the single arrow aimed at a target and the maelstrom of arrows aimed at nothing in particular—and one is ready to receive the unasked for. (Also: Carson’s being funny.)

Throughout her work, form can be a trap for those in hot pursuit of lawless thought (including Carson herself). Such is the predicament of the she-novelist at the center of “Flaubert Again,” who, having “enjoyed some success,” now dreams of writing, as she knows all novelists dream, “a different kind of novel.” As she determines: “It would have to abolish something, abolish several things—plot, consequence, the pleasure a reader derives from answers withheld, the premeditation of these.” What would mark this achievement is unclear, but it would surely involve a shift in the way writing feels and perhaps enable her to finally experience it as a totalizing action. The story choreographs a kind of pratfall over the word “novel,” which implies, if not outright promises, newness, freshness. Alas, the she-novelist’s ambitions inside the well-worn form seem to doom her project even before she realizes that she’s unwittingly pillaged the idea for her book from Flaubert. 

It would be unsporting not to pick up the gauntlet that Carson throws down here. Why not, just for a little fun, think of Wrong Norma as a wrong novel—or perhaps, at the very least, as novelistically wrong? Note again the lack of links between the texts, no binding narrative thread to speak of. Names, when she gives them, have a goofy ring to them—Chandler, Eddy, Washington, Grimaldi, Rusty—pinned onto figments rather than onto traditional characters. Nada motive, nada backstory. Rather, they’re largely made of action and speech and a sharp detail or two. Pronouns, impenetrable and porous all at once, are what allow her protagonists to move through assorted atmospheres without changing too much, remaining relative strangers to us readers seated squarely inside their heads. For Carson, time is always unruly—more a scribble than a line or a circle—as are its passengers. The dead nimbly flit through the present tense, sometimes bringing grief, other times relief. In Wrong Norma, she writes of “the staining together of mind and time,” describing that here-and-thereness of thinking and whoever gets caught in it.

Billy Childish, swimmer under water, 2019, oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 120". Image: Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo: Rikard Osterlund.
Billy Childish, swimmer under water, 2019, oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 120". Image: Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo: Rikard Osterlund.

Per Carson, Socrates had Krito, Bob Dylan, and Iggy Pop on his mind during the last three days of his life. In “An Evening with Joseph Conrad,” a bout of social jitters prompts the narrator to become the famed author of Heart of Darkness as a kind of oddball act of self-possession. (“Several ladies at the christening found his faintness attractive,” she wryly observes.) “Wrong Norma,” the book’s titular piece, quickly flickers through the rise and fall of a bad mood, which twists a self around another. “Wrong night, wrong city, wrong movie,” the narrator grouses, thereafter seeing, unhappily, something of herself on-screen in Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: “what could be more wrong she’s the same age as me this tilted wreck with deliquescent chin.” Turning the movie off, she reads a novel. “Thoughts trickle in and out.” 

One of the most exquisite exemplars of Carson in novelistically wrong form is “Lecture on the History of Skywriting,” delivered by the sky, who is cast as both the writer and the written-on. In this millennia-long memoir offered in eighteen pages, the sky reminisces about having sex with Alkamenes, who later gives birth to Herakles, which leads to recollections of Christopher Hitchens’s insights into parenting. The sky quotes John Cage, has a conversation with Beckett’s Godot, hat tips Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Pascal, and the Rig Veda, and includes a long passage in Arabic, stopping only once to bemoan—despite all proof of infinite possibility—how humanity fails to make use of its great blue expanse as a tabula rasa. “I had envisioned epic poems in hexameter verse arcing across the heavens from Patagonia to Paris,” the sky explains, “not ‘I LOVE YOU DORIS’ and ads for Lucky Strike.” The condition of the infinite, however, delivers the celestial scribe a far more tragic sentence when Herakles lights himself on fire: “For a creature who exists (like myself) outside time, death has no instant. I have no instant. I am at all times. I have to watch my most beloved child burn to death at all times. And I always will.” 

Has “death of the author” ever seemed so merciful a fate? Is a wrong novel more than the mere upending of a right one? (Do these questions warrant question marks?) As the narrator of “Flaubert Again” cracks about the maddening search for that different kind of novel: “Barthes died, he never got there.” Whether or not there is where Carson was headed or landed, Wrong Norma, like the sky for its writers, offers a cyclonic expanse for readers to contemplate forms, stories, and ideas. (As is printed on the back cover of Float [2016], her collection of twenty-two chapbooks that can be arranged in any order: “Reading can be freefall.”) But Carson has always done this. Think of how, in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002), she translated what remains of the great Greek musician and poet using brackets to signal where the papyrus was torn or worn away, and thereby gives the reader, in Carson’s words, “a free space of imaginal adventure.” Think of the randomizer, to whom Red Doc> (2013) is dedicated, and to the accidental, yet clarifying, slip of her finger on a keyboard (rather than some writerly sleight of hand) that reformatted her text so that every page of the book has far more generative white space than words. Think of how the collage of personal photographs and letters, drawings, and cutout texts comprising Nox (2010), Carson’s elegy for her estranged brother, demonstrates how material fails memory (and vice versa), and how a person is also a kind of fragment—of the world, of an inner world, of a family—and how when piecing their story together, we must leave room for the unknowable, the unknown.

“The things you think of to link are not in your control,” Carson told the Paris Review in 2004. “It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made.” Despite its distinct kinks and the steep chasms between its subjects and time lines, there are in fact connective tissues that bind many of Wrong Norma’s parts—unsettling ones that give her pen’s typically cool pulse a feeling of urgency, even emergency, namely: blood, crime, and violence. I can think of no other book by Carson, save for her translations of the Bakkhai (2017) and other tragedies by Euripides, in which human horrors are ever-present. Sometimes, she subtly weaves them into the fabric of a day, as in “Clive Song,” a celebration of her friend, a high-powered lawyer who orders his French toast underdone and laments his son’s failure to appreciate Monty Python, all while “striving for people on death row or places like Gitmo.” Or, as in “Fate, Federal Court, Moon,” violence is the inciting incident, here for an incantatory accounting of how murder is not a finite action but rather a continuous one, reshaping the present and the future of everyone involved.

At other times, Carson doles out the gore more straightforwardly, whether as blood spatter on the ceiling of a crime scene, or blood streaming down the arms of an attacker, or a vision of bread soaked in blood, or a pile of cutout paper letters that spell “BLOODMEAL.” “Forensic” is a word that appears three times in the book, only notable perhaps because she deploys it to invoke modes of apprehension. In one instance, it denotes unflinching self-study; elsewhere, it refers to the profession that marries science with law. “People who analyze bloodstains for forensic purpose are a varied lot, as you might imagine,” argues the narrator in “Thret.” “Queasiness not an option. Pity not an option. Facts are what matter.” But facts fall short of experience, as Carson’s writing counters. Useful at best for identifying a victim or a culprit, they cannot explain motive, or express and articulate pain, fear, or grief. As ever, the record is only complete when room is made for the unspeakable. “Thret” may be one of Carson’s most bizarro and ovation-worthy stories, a soliloquy of sorts by a part-time vigilante who performs crackpot acts of revenge—sending pizzas to a crooked judge with his wife’s email password spelled in olives across the top, covering the porch of a homicidal drug lord in shit—all with the help of his sidekick, a crow called Short Pants. “I was flailing at trauma,” the narrator concedes of their behavior. 

There are also the contexts and conditions in which language stops cold, can’t find an in with its subject, or is turned away at the threshold. Wrong Norma’s penultimate piece, “Todtnauberg,” is, like Nox, told through a series of collages, drawings, and clipped bits of text. “Heidegger was a committed Nazi from 1933 until who knows when,” Carson writes, then relays how, in 1966, the philosopher was visited by the poet Paul Celan, who had survived the Holocaust. (His parents had not.) How did they spend their time? What did they say to each other? Almost nothing is known. Carson takes her title from Celan’s poem “Todtnauberg,” written after his visit, in which he mentions “raw exchanges, later, while driving.” She imagines an encounter that involves whistling, a walk, and snow. Holes in the record can also feel like open wounds to those who sit in a present, a fate, that was written long ago. How in the world does a survivor sit beside and breathe the same air as the genocidal? We know that we don’t know, and by seizing elision rather than suffering from it, we access a space in which to conceive as-yet-untold possibilities for the future. 

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer, critic, and contributor to 4Columns, Bookforum, and the New Yorker.