Friday, July 29, 2011

Memory, Loss, and the Classics

Book Reviewed:  Nox, by Anne Carson

Nox (which means "night" in Latin) is a strange book.  For starters, it comes in a box.  The book itself folds out in accordion-style, but is printed on only one side so you can turn "pages" like you would in a regular book.  It's a collage of photographs, excerpts from a Latin-to-English dictionary, and memoir-style writing by Carson.  The book itself is actually a printed version of a scrapbook Carson made in order to remember her dead older brother.  She calls it an "epitaph in the form of a book."  It's not easy to read, but it sure is interesting.

Carson's older brother Michael was a very troubled soul, one who fled his home and family as a young man in order to escape a short prison sentence.  He spent his last few decades wandering Europe, gaining love and suffering losses, and mostly ignoring his parents and sister back home.  In 2000, Carson found out her brother had died of a heart attack a couple weeks earlier, and she went overseas to see his widow.  This book is Carson's reaction to that experience. 

Nox is by turns baffling and heartbreaking.  Nearly every-other page carries an excerpt from a Latin-to-English dictionary, featuring repetitive entries that Carson clearly added her own writing to in spots.  It's easy to want to skip these parts, but they often contain nuggets of ideas that are important to the piece as a whole.  Carson is a classicist, so there's a lot of references to history and myth.  The book is full of tiny, one-off sentences that are tells to Carson's inability to figure out her brother in life for death.  Most importantly, the book features excerpts from letters Michael wrote to his mother, as well as snippets of phone conversations he had with his sister.  These add an extra dimension to the entire thing.

This book is so strange that it can be a little off-putting at times.  Occasionally, it feels like we're peeking into something too private for public consumption, which is initially what this scrapbook was.  I'm glad Carson published it because it's really interesting and says a lot about the strangeness that is siblings, beings with the same genetic make-up who are nevertheless completely different creatures.  I can't say I loved this book, but it was definitely worth reading.

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