Anne Carson's "1 = 1" was originally published in the January 11, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

January 11, 2016I love Anne Carson’s work. I find it profound as she plays with form and humanity’s ancient questions. If you haven’t read Autobiography of Red, Nox (which is one of the most beautiful and unique books I own), or Antigonick, I recommend you fix that as soon as possible! I myself need to catch up as read Red Doc>, the sequel to Autobiography of Red.

Carson has appeared in the pages of The New Yorker several times over the years, but always in the poetry section. This is the first piece of short fiction she’s published in that magazine that I can find. And I’m as excited to read this as I have been about reading any story in The New Yorker in a couple of years.

I look forward to reading your thoughts below.

Here are Adrienne’s thoughts, to start us off!

I do not understand everything about this story, but I know there is so much in there to find. I wish I had more learning, more background, more intellect to make and see the connections that are here in this piece. So I’d like to encourage discussion about this story. I am ready to learn.

What did you notice? What struck you about the beginning and its connection to the ending? Is there a symbolism that ran through here that was heavy for you? Did this prose piece feel poetic in tone and theme? What is this tale really about?

Water predominates this piece — the lake, the sea. It held and cradled characters: the main character, the dog, refugees.

The first line is haunting: “She visits others.” Yet, then the protagonist calls herself selfish. How? Why? She notices people, situations, individuals. But she says there’s “no momentum in sharing” . . . ?

There is pressure to swim well and to use this water correctly. [. . .] 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. Every water has a right place to be, but that place is 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.

What does “fail it” mean?

And how does this connect to the end? “The fox does not fail.” And Comrade Chandler’s connection to the fox?

So much to talk about here. Let’s talk about it and see what we discover from each other.

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By |2016-01-06T16:17:15-04:00January 4th, 2016|Categories: Anne Carson, New Yorker Fiction|15 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett January 6, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for getting the discussion going with your thoughts, Adrienne. I’m still mulling this over as well — but I’ll come on soon once my schedule has died down a little and I can give this a proper jab!

  2. Margaret January 8, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    I recently found a note to myself in a book margin that I’d meant to use in a story: “She knew that to enter the water was to change.” I never used the line or developed the thought, but it remains in my notes a (failed) wish to do what Carson does, to plumb an element so thoroughly, as if nothing had ever been written about it. I don’t know if “1=1” is a short story, though there is great mystery here, a fundamental aspect of short fiction. And it bears the mark of the best stories, if only in the sense that no one else but Carson could have written it. I believe this without knowing her work at all. I kept reading the story not to know what happens, but what this character thinks. Such a reading experience is pure pleasure.

    “1 = 1” seems to be about our complicit failure to help–the impossibility of our helping–others, the migrants, in this case. Despite the fact that this narrator shares a (her?) home with a former prisoner, an extremely generous and humane gesture, she sees herself still selfishly swimming, staying afloat, while others are being passed over at sea to die. Water is that ultimate connector—all the water that has ever existed still exists, as humidity, ice, waste… We might swim someday in the same water that Jesus turned into wine. And yet—we are singular, ineffective against the composite, the tides, unable to swim in every bay, lake, and river. Maybe we are like the fox, cunning in our rationales, our excuses. We succeed only there.

    There are many beautiful lines, and many other possibilities of interpretation here… I look forward to learning more.

  3. Adrienne January 9, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Margaret – I have been thinking about what you’ve said… I do the same thing – write brilliant things in margins in moments of inspiration… Ah….

    But back to the story – is this a short story? A great question. Does it meet The Rules of Vonnegut, Emerson or Bradbury? But it is fiction which is the section of the magazine it falls under. I, too, enjoy plot driven by thought.

    I found your word choice of “complicit” interesting and was concerned because in my own thinking, how can we all take care of all the injustices though out all the world? I was overwhelmed – like drowning, or failing at swimming – when I was impressed that this story was a call-to-action of sorts – a calling out of our selfishness. But how can everything that needs to be done – without stepping on human rights or rights of others to choose what kind of help they do want – be done?

    And then I read your line “And yet—we are singular, ineffective against the composite, the tides, unable to swim in every bay, lake, and river.” And felt like I could swim once again… until..

    “Maybe we are like the fox, cunning in our rationales, our excuses. We succeed only there.” Hmmm…

    I agree with your interpretations. And after a brief conversation with Anne Carson, it became clear to me that this was not a call-to-action. This story is just how the protagonist is exploring her own conflicting inner stories. How to help when one clearly cannot solve? How does one see things honestly without excusing the self? Is it enough – in my own morals and values – to be satisfied to do what I can in my own corner of my world… or am I sly like a fox, who can swim so well, but cares not for another…?

    The eternal questions are explored here- am I my brother’s keeper… and who is my neighbor?

  4. Rosalind January 11, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    Like most writers Anne Carson is trying to make sense out of the human condition, a difficult task.She asks “what sense it makes”, but “existence and sense belong to singularity”. Her story’s title are numbers, “not sentences that let you off”. Her description of Chandler, a small tide of a person”, like the lake she swims in, her own generous gestures, ” like a random bear paw”, the dog that doesn’t tire and the image of the pear tree, mushrooms and fox all connect to the natural world. ” To be alive is just this pouring in and out”. “Try” is the operative word.
    We are all Passengers by definition, that is we are all passing, temporary, fleeting, scavengers along for the ride with little control. The fox controls.

  5. Sean H January 12, 2016 at 4:12 am

    I’m a fan of Carson’s work and there’s never been anything of hers I didn’t really like. I’ve enjoyed Autobiography of Red, Red Doc>, her poems, essays and translations of Sappho. This one left me wanting though. It’s genre-less-ness is not of a recommendable sort. The New Yorker publishes fiction of various stripes, and sometimes irks people with its novel excerpts, but this felt very much like a pre-story. Interesting that marginalia and “idea banking” have come up already in the comments because that’s what this felt like to me — a sort of journal entry or collection of things that could one day contribute to a larger poem, story or longer work. Form and style are subordinated (or perhaps even suborned) here and though there are glints of captivating imagery and philosophically compelling musings, the attention to detail and presentation that is an earmark of Carson’s work felt absent here. This felt too rambling and I didn’t sense a lot of intentionality or control, nor does she fully surrender to riffing or discursive abstraction. Instead, she sort of winds up in an uninteresting middle place, wordsome but rather purposeless. As a reader I felt more like I was in a swamp than in the water or on the land or in the air.

  6. Adrienne January 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks Rosalind for giving me some more to ponder about this piece. I hadn’t made the connection between Chandler and the lake yet…

    Sean, as always, you give me a cerebral nudge. Having never read Anne Carson before this, I intrigued by what you saw as the absence of attention to detail. Details were there – but am I right in hearing you say those details were maybe too philosophical, not really pinned down and concrete? And if so, which of her works would you recommend I tackle first? There are many authors who have the details down, written in well-constructed sentences, but are missing the meat and the umph that connects to the heart and soul of a reader.

  7. Parker January 12, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    It seems to me that the author is straining too hard to give some kind of deep meaning to metaphor– first water, then swimming, then the painting of the fox (“swimming in a lucent blue-green jelly” no less). All at the expense of compelling characters and story-line, it seems to me. I’m not sure what all this adds up to, but I don’t find it particularly intellectually compelling, and am reminded of John Locke’s dismissal of metaphor as a “superfluous distraction in intellectual endeavor.” I don’t agree with Locke that that’s always true, but I think one can make a case with this story that he might have a point. I’m left feeling that the point this story, (whatever it is) could be made just as well in a 10-line poem, where obscurity is more at home.

  8. Trevor Berrett January 12, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    I think that Parker is right to call this more of a poem than a short story. It feels very much like a poem to me, and I don’t mind that, and I don’t find it surprising given Carson’s other work. That said, while I enjoyed it a great deal, I’m still having trouble coming to any kind of comment on it. I’m not sure, then, if I think it is really a great work or just a work that I enjoyed. I’m still in need of my reread, though, so I hope to have something to say soon.

  9. Sean H January 12, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    Just a quick line to Adrienne. I’m far from a Carson expert but if I were pointing someone to her work I’d say start with Autobiography of Red. It’s distinctive, original, truly inventive. Yet it manages to do this without sacrificing emotion or engaging in hollow gamesmanship. It is in dialogue with an established literary tradition and in some ways is doing what Gardner does in Grendel or Rhys’ in Wide Sargasso Sea, but Autobiography of Red surpasses them in verve and in the distinctiveness of its depictions. It’s slightly more universal and less academic. In that book Carson clearly selects the right details whereas in this bit of poem-fiction from The New Yorker the details feel either arbitrary or not fully instantiated.

  10. Adrienne January 13, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    I agree with Parker that this is closer to poetry, but I find I don’t care too much about classification of genres. I agree with Sean that this piece isn’t tacked down enough. I agree with everyone about the thickness of symbolism here. And I agree with Trevor that there is something likable here.

    What I told Ms. Carson is that I enjoyed the invitation to think – and to think for myself. It is the first piece from TNY in a while I recall being encouraged to hear- but discern on my own – what the author (or narrator or protagonist) has to say. This may be the reason I haven’t let “1=1” go from my head just yet. It may not be the fox, or the water, or the refugees, or the format, or the playful fragments using the word “pass”, that keep this piece lingering. I just truly enjoy thinking on my own about other people’s ideas – and that, to me, is the purpose for writing stories/poetry.

    (Thanks Sean – I put it on my list.)

  11. Martha Heron January 13, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    Does anyone know. What Bach piece she is referring to
    “The first clavichord exercise”

  12. mehbe January 28, 2016 at 3:52 am

    Martha – this is a late response, but in case you are still looking – I am pretty sure there are no Bach “clavichord exercises”. I am guessing that what she had in mind (if, in fact, she actually did have a specific piece in mind) is the first prelude from Book I of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, which may be played on a clavichord, but these days is more often heard played on a piano or harpsichord.

  13. Margaret January 29, 2016 at 10:27 am

    And here’s a late-late reply… I had the same question, and while I know next to nothing about Bach’s music, I first thought this might refer to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the popular title of his Clavierubung (Keyboard Exercises). The first one, however, sounds much too upbeat for a requiem. As mehbe suggests, Carson is probably referring to his first prelude in his Well-Tempered Clavier, which is more familiar and quite moving.

  14. Ken January 30, 2016 at 6:24 am

    I found this very provocative. My interpretation was more that it dealt with certain moments, as with swimming, where one can mindfully succeed (even if one must work at it and also understand that one is still only a stone to the water) and feel satisfaction and “…know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path.” In contrast, there is the helplessness of seeing the unfortunate with whom one can hardly succeed or even relate to as the object of one’s attention as one could (albeit stonily and understanding the water’s indifference while working hard to master it) with the water. The “naive” “outsider” artist, though, can create both image (like the newspaper photo) and have it be of water. I read this twice and found it deeply satisfying. I appreciate the suggestions about her other works and will try and check them out.

  15. lidin July 16, 2016 at 12:30 am

    i am a poet who meets with fellow poets once a week for several hours; there are 6 of us, but not all 6 are always in attendance.
    we each bring copies of our work and each read our own work aloud, then we get feedback from others in group. most of us know one another for eons and trust the critiques we get, for the most part.
    i’ve been having a dry spell and took the liberty of making “erasures” using only some sentences, phrases, pieces of the story and changed very little of them to create “my own” piece…there is so much to mine in this story of carson’s that one could, i think, make many poems or pieces or stories using its content.
    the following is that poem:

    The Right Word

    She visits dawn
    Listening first
    She weeps
    She is all alone
    Full of anxieties
    To know beauty
    Keep finding it
    She searches for the right word
    There is a stoniness
    Meaning gone
    She cannot enter it
    Secrecy implies a concern
    Often enough to be a problem
    Evening now
    Still hot
    Lone day
    She finds herself
    Again thinking again
    About the failure

    note: i used “dawn” thought that is not what narrator visits; in fourth line i added “all”; instead of “long day” i made mistake and wrote “lone” but decided it better fit my purpose;i added an extra “again”….

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