IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO NEATLY SUM up Anne Carson’s work. She’s written in a wide range of forms: poetry, essay, performance pieces, translations, and a genre invented by her called “short talks” which are hyper-condensed lyrical meditations on any number of scientific, historical, or anthropological topics. She pushes the boundaries of whatever form she’s in, often into the avant-garde. Sam Anderson wrote in his New York Times profile of Carson: ‘[she] gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved—phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project—in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.’
To put it as straightforwardly as possible: Anne Carson’s writing is weird. She plays with form, structure, and genre, which can disorient a reader expecting a conventional approach, but if you come to Carson’s work with an open mind, letting the words guide you ‘phrase by phrase, line by line,’ you will most likely be delighted.
SHORT STORIES ARE A NEW venture for Carson in form, she didn’t write any before 2016 when she published three: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “1=1,” and “Back the Way You Went,” in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and each one is uniquely masterful. If Faulkner’s old quote holds true that every short story writer is a failed poet, then Anne Carson’s short stories are a testament to what happens when a successful poet decides to turn to short stories, not out of necessity, but as a creative choice.
“1=1” especially embodies Carson’s strengths as a writer. It is lyrical but strict in its brevity with short punchy sentences like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the literary minimalists, but accomplishes a totally different effect, not a working class ho-hummy vibe—that is not who Anne Carson is as a writer—but as a means of legitimately condensing prose to only what is necessary, and, as Sam Anderson pointed out, usually in a direction ‘either extraterrestrial or ancient’.
Carson put it perfectly in an estimation of her own work at a recent Lannan Foundation event:
‘Somebody was talking to me about writing the other day. They said the good thing I did in my writing was to have every word resist the next word or resist the way it should go. I believe that’s accurate enough. It’s partly orneriness but it’s partly trying to make the words take you to a fresh place.
THE SENTENCES IN “1=1” are ornery but the plot is simple. A woman goes for a swim, reads the newspaper, and has an interaction with her neighbor. There isn’t a necessary causal link between these events, they happen in the same day but other than that it’s not obvious how the events work together. Although “1=1” feels like a coherent whole. The three main events: 1) swimming, 2) newspaper reading, and 3) neighbor interaction, happen in two acts.
Swimming takes up the entire first act. The first sentence is: She visits others. We don’t know who these others are. She swims and watches a man play fetch on the beach with his dog. As she swims and observes and has several interwoven revelations as the tense of the narration switches subtly from the beginning to the end of the first paragraph, from third person to second person, almost imperceptibly, pivoting from “she,” to “oneself,” to “you.” It becomes clear by the time we get to “you” that yes, swimming is a physical act this woman is performing in the story but it’s also a metaphor. In the middle of the paragraph, at the same time tense is about to change, so too does the act of swimming become something else:
People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet.
What does knowing beauty, hearing nightingales sing, grooms kissing brides, and clocking comets have to do with swimming? Nothing, except Carson already has us on the hook. She’s melded two concepts together without having to spell it out for the reader because she writes intuitively. As the woman gets in the water her mind wanders and we wander with her, as if the physical submersion she undergoes gives license for the prose to also become fluid. Swimming = the ambiguous resistance every person must learn to navigate, continuously:
Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.
THE SECOND ACT BEGINS with an ending: Her visit ends. Back at her home, she reads the newspaper. A story about migrants packed in a train, ‘filthy families and souls in despair…’ She considers her life (act 1) and theirs side-by-side, concluding: Words like “rationale” become, well, laughable. Nothing about this consideration is necessary to the plot but it illustrates further Anne Carson’s methodology. The main character faces the chasm between her and others—i.e. the isolation of selfhood—wherein no rationale is sufficiently explanatory; should this be framed as a question, [it] would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind…
Faced with this problem, She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it’s cooler there. She then has an encounter with her neighbor Chandler who is drawing pears with sidewalk chalk. She tries talking with him but he doesn’t answer because he’s focused on his drawing: His gaze is ahead and within.
The second act ends by tying things back to the beginning. Thwarted by her attempts to connect with Chandler, the main character goes back upstairs and thinks of capacity, both ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’:
Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance—why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?
The beauty in the writing I think is partly fueled by Carson’s obsession with avoiding ‘rationales,’ or overarching explanations that demystify experience. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here and that’s kind of wonderful. It’s mainly meant to be enjoyed. But, at the very minimum, Carson makes clear her basic metaphor that runs through “1=1”: water, again, is a kind of potential of circumstance. Empty, still, perfect. You could be anyone but you are just you. Why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?
Chandler rings the doorbell. Done with his drawing, he is reaching out to her. He wants to show her his drawing of a fox. She looks at it and feels its connection with her day. In the picture the fox is swimming. Earlier that day she was swimming. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive… The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.
What is significant about the fox’s not failing? It picks up where the question in act 1 left off: What does that mean, fail it. The question isn’t answered but it is addressed. The woman swam in act 1, the fox swims now. The fox is a work of art which is part of its perfection. But is the fox doing more? Does it have peace in its mouth? Is that perfection?
HAROLD BLOOM WROTE in How to Read and Why that basically all short stories are ‘either Chekhovian or Borgesian; only rarely are they both.’ What he meant was that short stories tend to either be realistic (following Anton Chekhov) in which the mundane is elevated by description; or they are fantastic (following Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka) whereby the fantastic is brought down to earth by being made tenable. Anne Carson’s “1=1” is this rare case that blurs the line. She’s able to do this by how she writes at the sentence level. Nothing supernatural happens in “1=1.” Nothing much happens at all. It isn’t a fairytale. It isn’t a straightforward myth. It’s basically realism but it’s by surprise that she captivates. The events in her stories do not fall in succession like dominoes but rhyme with symbol, metaphor, and intuition.
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