Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Melville House UK; 192 pages; 2016.
In the past 12 months I’ve read a dozen memoirs, more than the previous five years put together. Into this recent feast of life stories comes Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the most intriguing and “unclassifiable” forms of the genre I’ve ever read.
Part autobiography, part academic treatise on gender and identity, part exploration of motherhood and marriage, part examination of what it is to be a writer, it wavers between deeply personal self-confession-come-love-story and textbook dry discourse.
I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it, other than it made me think about issues I’ve not really considered before.
Deeply cerebral read
Nelson is a poet, critic and non-fiction author. Her Wikipedia page describes her as “a genre-busting writer defying classification, working in autobiography, art criticism, theory, scholarship and poetry”. All those types of writing are apparent in this book, which makes for a deeply cerebral read even if it occasionally feels unfocused (by which I mean that I often wondered where the text was headed; the narrative thread seems inconsistent to me).
The book’s central theme is gender and identity, based primarily on Nelson’s own relationship — she married the artist Harry Dodge, who was born female but identifies as being “fluidly gendered”. (Part-way through the book we are introduced to the gruesome detail of Dodge’s double mastectomy.) As Nelson explains, not everyone, even transgendered people, want to be boxed off as male or female.
How to explain—“ trans” may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“ born in the wrong body,” necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, “transitioning” may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., “gender hackers”)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that much of the book focuses on the use of words and their meanings, presumably because pronouns, by their very definition, box people off into male or female.
Birth and death
Another strong theme running throughout the book is Nelson’s experience of motherhood — the difficulties associated with mothering a step-child (Dodge has a son from a previous relationship) and her decision to have a child of her own and the complications associated with getting pregnant. Her disappointment of giving birth to a boy when she’d hoped for a girl makes for uncomfortable reading, but I found her story of giving birth intertwined with the story of her mother-in-law’s death deeply moving. The juxtaposition of the two sure things we have no real control over is nicely done: raw, heartfelt and honest.
And I loved the way she describes what it feels like to fall in love with Dodge, the magic and shock of it.
You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you.
And ditto for the way in which she describes the ethical dilemmas associated with writing about people you know.
I try to listen, try to focus on his generosity in letting me write about him at all. He is, after all, a very private person, who has told me more than once that being with me is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.
But for all the book’s strengths, the prose style sometimes seems a little too knowing and “prickly”.
And for a book that’s very much about inclusiveness, it feels quite exclusive and elite. The text is cluttered with the names of American academics and critical theorists, people I’ve never heard of, which is fine, but if you’re not familiar with gender politics and LGBT studies (I’m not) it makes for difficult reading. It doesn’t help that The Argonauts lacks a bibliography, so unless you’re wedded to Wikipedia and Google to look things up as you read, much of it will simply go over the top of your head.
Finally, if you’re thinking about reading this book, can I suggest you steer away from the Kindle version: the formatting is dreadful. As soon as you make the font size bigger, half the text falls off the page. Go for the print edition if you can.
12 thoughts on “‘The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson”
Most reviewers/bloggers I respect feel ambivalent about this book. Someone told me I should read it but that I would likely throw it against the wall. As an LGBTQ person whose experiences crosses hers and her partner’s, I imagine the book would make me feel as alienated as LGBTQ “space” does. I don’t get it and it supposed to be my experience.
Given your personal experience it would be interesting to know what you thought of this one. I’m not sure I liked the highbrow nature of it, but I did like it’s overall message: that love and the way we love comes in many myriad forms.
For all its faults, maybe it is a useful book just because it shows that some people are just not comfortable being in either gender. When I began teaching I was the first in my school not to sort kids by gender (lining up etc) but I was doing it for feminist reasons. Now I realise that there are other reasons not to box people into one category or another…
Good on you for doing that with the kids… being categorised from an early age can stifle personal growth and development, particularly as gender is a social construct. Reading this book did strike a chord with me: as a child I was never happy being thought of as a girl. Even as a teen and young adult I struggled with the idea that because I was female I was expected to act or behave a certain (often limited) way. I have always been one to do my own thing and to buck trends/expectations and I have been comfortable doing that, but it can sometimes be a lonely experience when you’re regarded as the “odd” one. Reading Nelson’s book made me realise that my experience isn’t exactly rare.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think people are only just starting to understand this now. There’s a program soon to be shown on the ABC about three people changing gender, and even before reading your review I thought to myself that it’s a good thing to live in a society where these things are starting to be understood better than they were.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Not a book I’ll ever read, though I like the idea of “genre busting” (and gender busting!), but thank you for an interesting, well thought out review.
It’s not a book I would normally have chosen to read but there was a lot of “buzz” about it on social media last year and it got rave reviews, so when it was chosen for my book group I had no excuse not to read it. Everyone in my group loved it, but as you can see from this review I was much more on the fence about it.
I’ve been on the fence about Maggie Nelson for a while now. It sounds like this book is a mix of good and bad, but maybe it would still be a good experience to read it just to know what I think about the way she writes. It sounds almost cringingly honest, and it’s interesting that you say for a book about inclusiveness, it feels exclusive. Makes me curious…
Have you read any of her other stuff, Naomi? I’m tempted to read the one she wrote about her aunt’s murder… she talks about that one a little in this book, as it apparently resulted in her becoming stalked by someone who took objection to what she’d written. Makes me curious to see what it was that could result in some random reader taking this kind of action…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I haven’t… that one sounds intriguing!
I’ve got a copy of this (a print copy thanks goodness) but haven’t got round to reading it yet. At the very least, it sounds like it will get me thinking!
LikeLiked by 1 person