The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review: challenging and profound
Celebrated US writer explores ‘the queer part’ of her life with both tenderness and intellectual rigour, writes Sinéad Gleeson
In the same week I reread Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts I downloaded a Granta podcast with the American writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Solnit writes about place, politics and gender among other things, and describes her own work as “anti-memoir”. In the podcast, she argues that none of us exist just as selves – we spend time being other people as “watchers, listeners and readers”.
Nelson has consistently done this and, in her latest book, explores “the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing”. As a nonfiction writer and poet, Nelson’s work is far from a singular entity. Like Solnit, she has created her own word for this oeuvre: autotheory, which is part philosophical manifesto, gender treatise, fragmented novel, memoir, love letter and art critique.
Her previous projects include a book about her murdered aunt (Jane: A Murder) and a meditation on the colour blue (Bluets), but The Argonauts is a different excavation of the personal. Her partner Harry tells her, “You’ve written about all the parts of your life except the queer part”, so Nelson moves from the universal – love, bodies, parenthood – to explore her experience of heteronormativity, relationships and queerness.
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To make sense of things, she maps her feelings on these pages: “I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Now this might sound all heavy and academic, but there’s also much tenderness and humour leaking out of this book.
Once Nelson’s life was more minimalist: writing, singlehood, and not wanting to be “a breeder” but that changes when she meets Harry Dodge, “a debonair butch on T” (testosterone, because Harry is gender fluid and was born female).
They have lots of anal sex, fall in love and raise Harry’s young stepson. Later they try for a child of their own, using donor sperm and IVF: “2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you six months on T . . . On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female”. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. We were two human animals undergoing transformation beside each other.”
Nelson captures the closeness, respect and support that is as central to relationships as attraction and sex; while Harry confesses that being with her “is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe artist”. Nelson is a superb storyteller, a non-polemicist, full of enquiry. Multiple sections dazzle and probe, particularly at the end of the book when she switches from the track of giving birth to Harry’s words about tending to his dying mother.
Nelson dismisses the mainstream narratives of gender, the idea that “being born in the wrong body necessitates an orthopaedic pilgrimage between two destinations”. Just as Harry’s Top surgery (double mastectomy) changes his body, pregnancy impacts on Nelson. It’s “profoundly strange and wild and transformative” but she wonders why it also symbolises “the ultimate conformity”, or if it impacts on their queerness, and the uniqueness of her family.
Long before Harry, and motherhood, Nelson attends a panel talk between art critic Rosalind Krauss and literary theorist Jane Gallop. Krauss castigates Gallop for using photographs of her child in her art, suggesting maternity had rotted her brain. Nelson is fascinated and a little repulsed by what plays out on stage, “the knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity”.
Nelson’s own intellectual rigour is obvious and in the page margins she cites work – from Judith Butler and Roland Barthes to DW Winnicott, Eula Bliss and poet Eileen Myles – that has made her think and create. The Argonauts flits between subjects and time scales in a matter of lines, and is written in short paragraphs and fragments. It is kinetic and arbitrary, and encourages readers to challenge their own assumptions.
The book’s title is borrowed from Barthes’s theory that saying “I Love You” to the same person is akin to the ancient Greek Argonauts, who gradually replaced each part of their ship mid-voyage, without changing its name. Nelson is interested in labels and titles, of how we pigeonhole and prejudice. The naming of things, the need to categorise people or art, is compulsive, human and sometimes harmful.
Nelson admits she is devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea “that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed”. This is the reason she writes: to understand things, to figure things out with words, words that she says are “good enough”.
These words, this book, are more than that. The Argonauts is a profound and challenging work that reminds us of the need to ask questions and offer empathy.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1