The Terrible Slopes of Time

Once Geryon had gone

With his fourth-grade class to view a pair of beluga whales newly captured 

From the upper rapids of the Churchill River. 

Afterwards at night he would lie on his bed with his eyes open thinking of 

The whales afloat

In the moonless tank where their tails touched the wall – as alive as he was 

On their side 

Of the terrible slopes of time. What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly

Turning to the yellowbeard who

Looked at him surprised. Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction. 

Just a meaning that 

We impose upon motion. But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean. 

Wouldn’t want to be late 

For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.

Autobiography of Red, 90  

The moment before this passage, Geryon sees a list of names belonging to “professors detained or disappeared” hanging on the wall, and tries not to focus on any one of them in particular. He wonders, “Suppose it was the name of someone alive. In a room or in pain or waiting to die” (90). This thought plunges him into the memory of his fourth-grade field trip, and Geryon sees a connection between missing people, “alive… in a room or in pain or waiting to die,” and the captured whales, who are also alive, in an enclosed tank, their freedom taken from them, waiting to die. I struggled to understand the lines “as alive as he was/on their side/of the terrible slopes of time,” but I think they show Geryon identifying with the whales and their lack of freedom, and places him at the same point as the whales in their respective timelines. I imagine “the terrible slopes of time” as a mountain, or a roller coaster – beginning at the bottom with birth, climbing to the peak, and falling downward towards death. If Geryon is as alive as the whales are, and he is on their side of the slopes of time, does that mean that both he and the whales are on the downward slope, heading toward death? Is that how Geryon imagines his life progressing, as a fourth-grader lying in bed late at night – a captive in a cage, already falling down the “terrible slopes of time”? I’m reminded of the moment earlier in the text when Geryon, his brother, and their babysitter are discussing weapons, and Geryon says his favorite weapon is a cage (33). At various moments throughout the text, Geryon seems preoccupied with cages and captivity, and here he connects that feeling of being caged with ideas about time. 

Geryon’s thoughts suddenly jolt him back to the present moment with a question: what is time made of? I think there is a connection here between time, cages, and queerness, and “the yellowbeard” helps to put it into words. “Time is an abstraction,” he says – time is just a concept, with no meaning beyond that which people impose upon it. This imposed meaning, however, is central to existence within a cis- and heteronormative society. The yellowbeard’s next comment shows that although he recognizes time as an abstraction, he is still bound by its practical purpose: “‘But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean./Wouldn’t want to be late/For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.” The yellowbeard, like the vast majority of people, experiences time as a practical measurement of motion, which he has to adhere to for his own sake and the sake of others. I think Geryon, on the other hand, experiences time in a less straightforward, more queer way. In “In a Queer Time and Place,” Halberstam argues that queer experiences of time oppose a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ timeline of birth, marriage, reproduction, old age, and finally death – Geryon’s “terrible slopes of time.” To a fourth-grader witnessing “newly captured” whales and suddenly aware that they will likely spend the rest of their lives in captivity, this ‘normal’ timeline may feel like a cage. However, the moments of Geryon’s adult life that Carson presents align with Halberstam’s ideas about queer time: “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (Halberstam 1). Autobiography of Red shows Geryon as an adult whose future timeline does not conform to “those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 2); rather than settle down, get married, have children, and eventually die, Geryon travels the world, asks strangers what time means to them, captures his life in photographs, and outlives the end of his biography.

3 thoughts on “The Terrible Slopes of Time”

  1. The conversation of time in Autobiography of Red is so useful for the context of our class. It might also be handy to place the conversation about the Yazcamac into this context as well. These “red people with wings, [with] all their weaknesses burned away—and their mortality” (129). Using the thought process you outlined from “In a Queer Time and Place”, we might be able to associate the Yazcamac with people who have wholly accepted a queer time and live vicariously through non-normative timelines and ways of life. Geryon, someone who identifies with an alternate timeline but still feels the pressures of normative societal expectations feels trapped, as you said. He sees his redness and his wings as things that make him a monster and force him to be trapped. But, as you said, he outlives the mythological ending and Geryon is able to grow past his captivity. When Ancash explains the concept of the Yazcamac to him, Geryon sees the escape from a normative timeline that traps him.

  2. The idea of the “terrible slopes of time” reminds of the conversation that Geryon has with Lazer in the bar after the yellowbeard’s talk. I didn’t fully understand the idea until I read this post and made the connection here: Lazer tells Geryon that he feels as though he is standing on a hill, watching his four-year-old daughter climb behind him. To Lazer, the hill represents a life (and time passing, the terrible slopes of time, even), for “‘That is who we are. Creatures moving on a hill…At different distances always changing. We cannot help one another or even cry out–what would I say to her, “Don’t climb so fast”?'” (Carson 95) and this is the exact reason that the slopes of time are “terrible.” Time is always moving forward for everyone and we cannot change the speed at which anyone moves, we can only overcome obstacles as we pass them and try to move ahead as best as we can. For Lazer, time is made of the hill, and time is exactly as terrible as Geryon thinks it is.

  3. I love the idea of time as a cage, especially with the added factor that it is a cage we impose on ourselves. If we are looking at time as an abstraction, something with no real meaning but the one we give to it, then why do we still feel so confined by it? What does it mean to cage ourselves? How can we “run out of time” if we decide what time means to us? I think in our society there is a constant pressure to be “using your time” intentionally, productively, wisely– I was scrolling through instagram before writing this, and one suggested post said exactly that: “your time is valuable, use it intentionally.” Then the very next post said: “not everything has to be done today. take your time.” So the conflicting messages about time further contribute to this abstraction, and complicate what the societal expectations are. The speed of time is something that varies by person, and yet there are still societal pressures to be using time in a certain way. I think it is here that we can try to involve queer time, and feel liberated by the opportunity to embrace our own timeline.

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