Carol Anshaw’s ‘Carry the One’ Is a Work of Great Populist Literature

Novelist Carol Anshaw is something of a double threat. In addition to writing three previous novels – what should be her breakthrough into the vaunted mainstream comes with her fourth and latest, Carry the One – she is also a visual artist. It’s fitting, then, that the hardcover edition of Carry the One has a dust jacket that has the feel and texture of a painter’s canvas, and a back cover image is a picture of the reverse side of one.

This is apt because Carry the One is a genuine artistic device all on its own, with such care and precision put into the way it paints pictures with words. “The afternoon sky was opaque, horizonless” writes Anshaw, “the olive green of an army blanket, sloughing off a heavy fog. Snow was headed in.” Such writing conjures a definite image in the movie theatre of one’s skull, and Carry the One is just one of those books that come along, oh so rarely, that will have you hooked to every word. Your mind will not wander. Succumb, and awash yourself in the richly evocative language that Anshaw uses without a sense of pretention.

Carry the One is such a carefully constructed story, one with flawed characters that you’ll genuinely care about, that it’s surely this year’s candidate for the Great American Novel. I’ll go even further: I think that Carry the One is the Great American Novel of the decade. Not surprisingly, it has been ten years since Anshaw’s last book, and one assumes the wait was so long in coming because the author wanted to get things right. Does she ever.

If you wanted to peg this exquisite, moving novel, it lies somewhere between last year’s The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson – both Carry the One and Thompson’s book are largely set in the American Midwest, and are compact and yet sprawling novels that trace the lineage of families through about a quarter century or slightly more – and the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad, in that each chapter is told from a different point-of-view. And, yes, there’s a little dash of the family portraiture of Jonathan Franzen in the proceedings, too, but Anshaw is able to do in about 250 pages what it takes Franzen about double that to pull off. It is simply amazing.

Carry the One is the story of a tragedy and how it subtly and not-so-subtly affects the lives of family members and other assorted hangers-on over the trajectory of time. And, yes, Carry the One deftly marries one’s personal downfall with the great disaster that we all shared on 9/11, but it doesn’t feel like a cloying or superficial move. What’s more, here’s the book’s ultimate secret power: each of the novel’s chapters are almost virtually self-contained, and could read as standalone short stories. In fact, you could open up this book to the very middle, start reading, and you’d get a general sense of what’s transpiring because – though the story does foreshadow upcoming events, and reflects on previous ones – the prose is written in such a lean, compact way with subtle reminders about certain characters who have come and gone during the proceedings that you wouldn’t really get too lost. I wouldn’t recommend that course, however, simply because Carry the One is a tremendous story from cover to cover, and, as noted above, you will want to hang onto every single delicious word.

In fact, there are deft bits of writing that amaze: one chapter ends, “The social road ahead looked like a bleak highway, post-apocalyptic, overblown with dust, gray and lifeless except for mutants popping up here and there.” The next delightfully begins, “Zombies lurched and hobbled across the screen on the wall in front of her, slow and hungry. Watching them, Alice was temporarily, but enormously, happy. Watching a zombie movie in business class, eating heated nuts on a flight from Chicago to Amsterdam.” It’s a neat little trick.

For those who need a bit of a plot synopsis, Carry the One is a bit of a juggernaut. But it starts out like this: it’s 1983, a young, pregnant woman named Carmen has just gotten married to a cad who will later cheat on her with their teenaged babysitter. She’s attending a reception in her honor at a farm in the middle of nowhere. Her sister Alice (who is gay) makes out with Maude, the sister of the groom, in a bedroom within the farm house. Meanwhile, Carmen’s brother Nick, who’s wearing a dress, and his girlfriend Olivia, wearing a powder blue tux, are getting high and drunk in another room.

At the end of the wedding celebrations, in the middle of the night, five people get into a car, drive off in an opiate haze with only the fog lights on, and run down and kill a ten-year-old girl who happens to be in the wrong place (the middle of the road) at the wrong time (it’s about 3AM). And that, my friends, is just the first 11 pages.

Carry the One, which, yes, is an arithmetic term, earns its title in the sense that all of the major and minor characters are largely supporting one another through this transcendent work: Carmen and Alice flail at helping Nick through his on-again/off-again addictive and destructive relationship with illicit drugs and alcohol; Alice supports Carmen when her ear is damaged during one of her social activism crusades at an abortion clinic; Carmen struggles to support her artistically-tempered son Gabe, first as a single mom and then as a newly married woman to another man; Nick tries to carry the guilt of the fatal accident on his shoulders and be true to Olivia, incarcerated for being the driver that caused the deadly collision.

As Anshaw notes of Nick and Alice’s relationship: “If Nick weren’t Alice’s brother, if he were just a friend, she supposed they would have drifted apart long ago. But they were not friends. They were here to keep each other from spinning off alone into the dark matter of the universe.” In other words, they’re carrying each other.

What makes Carry the One so powerful and so perfect is that this is a tale that’s about the unexpected: though there are glimmers of the future in the text, you really don’t know how these characters are going to end up. Plus, they feel so vivid and so realistic that you don’t notice the author in the background manipulating the marionette strings: these are about as honest, unpredictable flesh-and-blood entities that you’ll ever find in a novel. That makes Anshaw’s creation so addictive, so vivid and so awe-inspiring.

While Carry the One isn’t exactly a page turner with riveting suspense, and it isn’t so hung up on the peculiarities of language that you would have to flip backwards a few pages to pick up something you might have missed, what it is, is still gripping in its own fashion. You live and breathe with these people. You share their hopes and anxieties. You might even disagree with their politics (as I grow older, I’ve found myself to become more conservative in nature, yet Anshaw is clearly a very Democratic writer if the activist beliefs of Carmen could be superimposed on her), but you don’t hate the characters for their differences. You admire them. (“Carmen saw the world in clear moral terms, held herself to high standards and expected the same of everyone else,” writes Anshaw, adding truthfully, “Which on occasion made her a pain in the neck.”)

These are fictional people who have honest, real faults, and yet they are strangely compelling – the sort of folk you might want to have tea and sandwiches with. You get wound up and carried away with their life stories. And, in a particularly deft move, some characters simply move on and are dropped, while new ones settle down with Carmen’s family. That’s about as true to life as you can get: people you once knew and were close with seemingly disappear after awhile, and you go out and make new friends in a cyclical fashion, particularly as one moves around from city to city – as these characters are sometimes wont to do. In other words, Carry the One is firmly rooted in the real and believable.

In short, Carry the One is a major artistic triumph. Not one false move is played, and the harsh realities of the sorrowful tale, mixed with the highs of personal triumph, are mixed together like colours on a palette, making this novel something to celebrate. In fact, in a rather showy move, Anshaw uses dialogue fairly sparsely, showing her characters’ motivations through interior hues, but without breaking the old adage about “show, don’t tell”. It’s inspiring to read. Indeed, Carry the One is a game changer in American letters, and, in a pre-release interview quoted in Entertainment Weekly, Anshaw noted, “I wanted to make a story that has sweep but feels concentrated. I wanted to make a book that is recognizably a novel but also something a little new.” She has admirably succeeded on both fronts.

Carry the One is the work of a confident master who takes prose and narrative to dizzying new heights, letting readers who come along for the ride savour every last morsel that Anshaw has to offer. This is a work that scores a virtual bulls-eye: it is completely penetrating in examining the human condition without rendering the details into one simple dimension. It is simply faultless. In about ten years of reviewing books for PopMatters, I have never doled out the highest ranking that this site can award. I do so now, despite my own personal reservations that a work of art needs at least a good five years to marinade and work towards being a timeless classic. In my mind, though, Carry the One has already arrived fully formed and flawless: it’s to books right now as to what Kid A was to music in the year 2000.

I cannot be more effusive about this genius work. It’s not too long, not too short, pulls all the right moves, and is genuinely affecting. This is a work of great populist literature: it’s literary without being snobby, and yet it is crowd-pleasing without wallowing in debasement. Carry the One is a true treasure of a read, and there’s no doubt that when the major awards season comes, this novel will be bestowed with high honours. Anshaw has created something terrific and magical: a true work of art that almost anyone will be swept away by. Easily accessible and yet surprising erudite, Carry the One is a novel for the ages and will likely be the very best thing anyone will read this year, or in the coming years ahead. It is exactly what every writer in the USA strives towards eagerly: Carry the One is, without a doubt, one of many examples of the Great American Novel, a work that charts new terrain for the art of writing in American letters and yet is a truly enjoyable, exhilarating read. It is, above all, perfect.

RATING 10 / 10