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.