Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review – ‘one of the sharpest thinkers of her generation’ | Autobiography and memoir”
Let’s start with an introduction. Maggie Nelson is one of the most electrifying writers at work in America today, among the sharpest and most supple thinkers of her generation. Born in 1973, she has so far produced nine books, four of poetry and five of non-fiction, knitting together what might in heavier hands be abstruse theory and humid confession to create an exhilarating new language for considering both the messiness of life and the meanings of art. If you haven’t heard of her, it’s because she is yet to be published in the UK, from which one might conclude that British publishing is becoming too timid for its own good.
Her writing defies easy definition. Previous works include a philosophical survey of heartbreak and the colour blue (Bluets), two volumes about the abduction and murder of her aunt (Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts), and the magnificently invigorating The Art of Cruelty, a study of avant-garde art that turns by degrees into an unflinching investigation into the nature of violence itself. These books never quite settle into a fixed form. They float across categories, now memoir, now poetry, now philosophy, now criticism, too fleet and witty and subtle to be pinned down.
The Argonauts is, likewise, resistant to summary, though describing it as a love story might come closest. It is, after all, about love and its fruits: both the falling in love and the maintaining of affection, devotion, tenderness. It is about love and marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, birth and family-making, and because it is a book by Maggie Nelson, it turns every one of these concepts on its head.
The words “I love you” come in the very first paragraph, a confession uttered by Nelson to her debonair lover, the artist Harry Dodge. She falls for Dodge’s brilliance, decency and immense sexual charisma, but during the early days of their courtship, she is not at all certain which pronoun her lover prefers to go by. Dodge is transgender, and not in accordance with the insistent media narrative of a man locked in a woman’s body, but rather someone who does not wish to traffic in binaries at all (“I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers”).
They marry in a rush in the final hours before Prop 8 (the ruling that temporarily eliminated same-sex marriage in the state of California) passes, their sole witness a drag queen doing triple duty as the Hollywood chapel’s greeter and bouncer. “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).” In the years that follow, they undergo dynamic shifts in their own bodies. Nelson undergoes gruelling rounds of IVF and then becomes pregnant; Dodge starts injecting testosterone and has top surgery, liberating him from years of painful chest-binding. His three-year-old son moves in with them part-time, and then their own baby, Iggy, joins the family.
The Argonauts is about these small, miraculous domestic dramas, and the ardent acts of readjustment and care that they require, but it is also a reconsideration of what the institutions established around sexuality and reproduction mean if you come at them at a slant, if you disrupt them by the very fact of your being. Evictions and exclusions keep occurring. Friendly encounters with male waiters or service personnel are regularly unsettled when Dodge hands over his credit card with its female name, an act freighted with the threat of violence. During a Q&A, Nelson is asked by a well-known playwright how she managed to write a book about cruelty while pregnant. “Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.”
These narratives are interesting in and of themselves, but Nelson isn’t just airing her feelings; she’s bent on using these experiences as ways of prying the culture open, of investigating what it is that’s being so avidly defended and policed. Binaries, mostly: the overwhelming need, to which the left is no more immune than the right, for categories to remain pure and unpolluted. Gay people marrying or becoming pregnant, individuals migrating from one gender to another, let alone refusing to commit to either, occasion immense turbulence in thought systems that depend on orderly separation and partition, which is part of the reason that the trans rights movement has proved so depressingly threatening to certain quarters of feminist thought.
Real people are the objects of this boundary policing, and Nelson is at pains to make them visible, to show both the cost and virtue of their freedom. It is because she presents herself and Dodge so nakedly on the page that she is able to make light work of the thinkers, radical and conservative alike, who traffic in casually cruel abstracts and prohibitions. Of Baudrillard’s claim that assisted reproduction heralds the suicide of the species by eliminating the mortal, sexed being, she observes tartly: “Honestly, I find it more embarrassing than enraging to read Baudrillard, Žižek, Badiou and other revered philosophers of the day pontificating on how we might save ourselves from the humanity-annihilating threat of the turkey-baster.”
The kind of thinking Nelson does value is subtle, capable of ambiguity and arising out of close and careful observation, which is why it is not surprising that the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott should emerge as something of a hero here. Winnicott is responsible for the concept of the good enough mother, and his refusal to insist on perfection makes him an ideal participant in Nelson’s project of celebrating ordinary maternal devotion while castigating the canonisation of the mother that society uses to punish and shame women.
In the largest sense, this is a book about dependence, about the way that life requires interpenetrations and boundary crossings of all kinds, beginning with the in utero experience of being housed within another’s body, that “most mysterious and gory of apartments”, and continuing through acts of extension that include both sex and reading, those journeys into the recesses of other minds and anatomies.
Nelson is keen on both; positively evangelical on the subject of arse-fucking, but also lucid and generous when it comes to acknowledging the thinkers who have shaped and schooled her. Her list of “the many-gendered mothers of my heart” ranges from the late and much missed Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the fat, freckled queen of queer theory, to the porn star and performance artist Annie Sprinkle. What draws her are people who, as the critic Roland Barthes explains in his theory of the neutral, “in the face of dogmatism, the menacing pressure to take sides, offers novel responses: to flee, to escape, to demur, to shift or refuse terms, to disengage, to turn away”.
This interest in dependence and ambiguity is reflected stylistically, too. The Nelsonian unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph, a mode that allows for deep swerves and juxtapositions, for the interspersing of anecdote and analysis. If the danger of being elliptical is that one sometimes sounds dotty, the reward is an ability to dodge enclosure, to achieve by way of judicious layering a complexity that is otherwise elusive. This is bolstered by Nelson’s habit of lacing her text with italicised statements by other writers, the sources logged in the margins. The effect is musical, polyphonic, a conversation between multiple participants rather than a narcissistic aria.
In the final pages, Nelson tells the story of Iggy’s birth, mixing it with Dodge’s own account of his mother’s death. Birth is well-travelled ground in literature these days, but I have never read anything as luminous and exacting as these wrung accounts of the passage in and out of life. Earlier, Nelson describes the way a foetus creates space in the body where there was none, and it is precisely this extraordinary gift that her own writing possesses: a facility for making room, for offering up possibilities beyond the either/or, the this and that. Generative and generous, this is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone who desires, especially if what they desire is nothing short of freedom itself.
• The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press). To order a copy for £23, go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is forthcoming from Canongate.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review – ‘one of the sharpest thinkers of her generation’ | Autobiography and memoir