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Review of Anne Carson's Wrong Norma – Brilliant Disjointed Thoughts at Their Finest

Review of Anne Carson’s Wrong Norma – Brilliant Disjointed Thoughts at Their Finest


What kind of mind creates an entire book that reads like a mistake, with each sentence a potential fault line? Canadian poet Anne Carson, who primarily writes prose in this book, explains that Wrong Norma is the title because she recognizes the inconsistencies within the text. We should not expect the pieces to be in harmony with each other. I had the chance to interview Anne Carson, a classicist who is often considered a potential Nobel laureate, for this publication – although “interview” may not accurately describe our email exchange. I sent her questions, and she brushed most of them away like pesky flies. The word “Sphinx” would be an understatement. “Formidable” would also apply. I was later relieved to discover that she is known for being resistant to discussing her work.

When I read her new book, I noticed something deeper happening: the struggle of expressing thoughts accurately. Words are not reliable partners in this book. In Snow, she says: “words can surprise us, being quiet or crazy; we think they are useful or fun, or controllable, but suddenly they strip us of our clothes and we’re left embarrassed in the bright flash of lightning.” In her essays, both questions and answers can be unpredictable. Some questions don’t even require a question mark, as she points out in the first essay. However, language has a wildness that contradicts Carson’s usual carefulness, leading to constant friction.

Experiencing this incredible and skillfully written book allows a glimpse into the inner workings of the mind. Its uniqueness lies in its ability to capture the fragmented nature of human thoughts. However, it should be noted that Carson’s greatest strength is her humor. She writes with a cool demeanor, self-awareness (often focusing on selfishness), and self-deprecation.

The author of this stunning book also provided the illustrations, which mimic the original hand-drawn design. The fox featured on the cover, although graceful, appears to be in a less-than-ideal state: lacking distinct features and wearing what could be interpreted as long, black evening gloves. It has a tongue hanging out and its fur is smudged and rusty. It is possible that the fox represents Norma – although my understanding is that it is meant to depict Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (portrayed by Gloria Swanson – who could also be described as foxy).

‘Virtuosic’: Anne CarsonView image in fullscreen

The short story “Saturday Night As an Adult” captures the disappointment of meeting with friends that many of us have experienced. The narrator describes the friends as “art people” with a casual demeanor, and the restaurant as dark and noisy. Despite their efforts to make conversation, the group resorts to pointing and shouting to order food. The gathering ends with the realization that they are not able to truly be themselves in this setting. The author, Carson, skillfully portrays the chaos of the restaurant with vivid detail.

She monitors her own behavior, but her chosen topics are unbounded. Her field is diverse – encompassing both reality and the fantastical. Her personal list of subjects includes “Joseph Conrad, Guantánamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my Dad… Russian thugs”. There is also a prose poem written in the voice of Socrates, as well as a darkly playful illustrated account of the meeting between poet Paul Celan and fascist philosopher Heidegger. Additionally, there is a piece that will stop you in your tracks – Thret (in three parts). The use of Anglo-Saxon spelling in the title is a subtle threat in itself, creating a sense of unease that only intensifies as the violent world depicted within unfolds. It is a jarring piece that delves into a shattered society, school shooters, and drug lords. As the narrator asks, “But can someone tell me what it is about Louis Vuitton? Why do gangsters love this stuff? It’s just luggage, right?” In this brutal context, the purpose of humor is not to make us comfortable, but to further destabilize us. The central figure is a scientist specializing in stains.

I enjoyed the first piece of the book, which is untitled and explores the self-centered joy of swimming. Carson’s unique and meticulous approach is fascinating. She swims with the grace of a poet. The water has its own set of rules, and she reflects on the need to constantly seek it out and let it envelop you with each stroke. With every movement, there is the possibility of failure. What does that failure signify? This question may linger, but this book is a continuous success.

  • Anne Carson’s book, Wrong Norma, is released by Jonathan Cape for £14.99. To assist the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.

Source: theguardian.com