Author, Book review, Maggie Nelson, Melville House, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Lee Rourke, literary fiction, London, Melville House, Publisher, Setting

‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke


Fiction – paperback; Melville House Publishing; 224 pages; 2010.

I first heard about Lee Rourke’s The Canal on John Self’s Asylum. John’s review indicated that it was a novel about boredom, and having grown up with the edict that “intelligent people never get bored” I was intrigued to see how it was possible to write a story about this subject that wasn’t — how should I say this? — boring.

Indeed, I’m happy to report that The Canal, easily consumed in a few sittings, is the least boring novel I have read in a long while. I found it so thought-provoking that I committed what I regard as a cardinal sin, as far as books are concerned, and defaced every second or third page by underlining entire passages and scribbling notes in the margins.

Admittedly the narrative style may not be for everyone, because it initially comes across as being rather dull and repetitive, a style I assume Rourke employed deliberately given the subject matter. I was immediately reminded of Magnus Mills narrative voice and found it comforting rather than frustrating.

The story is a simple one, about a man who gives up his job in order to wallow in boredom of his choosing. He does this by sitting on a brown bench beside a murky canal in North London and watches the world — mainly cyclists and pedestrians using the towpath, swans and Canada geese on the water, workers in the ugly office building on the opposite bank — passing by.

I liked my spot across from the flat-screen monitors and superfluous balconies. I liked being bored — I liked what it was doing to me. The word “boring” is usually used to denote a lack of meaning — an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible — it had meaning.

Much of the story is written stream-of-consciousness style as the man takes in his surroundings and ponders the meaning of the universe. As you would expect, there is relatively little action (or, indeed plot), but the novel works by creating moments of high tension in stark contrast to the “boring” nature of the narrator’s first-person voice. Chief among these is the arrival of two “outsiders”: the first, an attractive woman who joins him on the bench, and reluctantly becomes a part of his new “boring” world; and the second, a group of menacing teenagers, who threaten his personal safety, on more than one occasion.

Indeed, it’s the arrival of the teenage hoodlums — the Pack Crew from a neighbouring council estate — that throws up several intriguing ideas about boredom that Rourke explores over the course of his novel. One, is the link between boredom and violence, and the second is the link between boredom and acting impulsively.

I’ve always been able to understand impulse. It is something that is instantly recognisable to me. It is something tangible, that I have felt, intrinsically, throughout my life. Even as a young child I understood impulse. I understood that there were no real reasons to my actions, as much as anyone else’s. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a violent man, but, on impulse, I have acted violently.

Rourke takes this notion further by drawing comparisons with 21st century terrorism (the 9/11 terror attacks and the 7/7London bombings are recurring themes), by suggesting that terrorism is nothing more than acts of bored violence. “They [the terrorists] have nothing else to do. We are empty.”

Rourke makes many other highly astute observations that reveal so much about the ways in which we lead our urbanised, technology-dependent, work-dominated lives. He constantly hones in on the ways in which technology is a threat, not a savior (in one scene the narrator compares the canal dredger to a “monster from the deep, like it was about to come back to life and terrorise us all”) and how we waste our lives at work, missing the small things (such as the flight of a swan lifting off from the canal) that gives meaning, and joy, to our existence.

There are recurring metaphors about nature surviving in the face of urban development — urban foxes on the towpath, the beautiful waterfowl swimming on the ugly canal — and how there is no escaping the encroachment of traffic, because even in the most desolate of locations the sky above is still filled with helicopters and aeroplanes.

I could go on… but I won’t. Needless to say, The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.