The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

In simple terms The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery, but the slightness of the book and its short sections belie the depth of thought which surrounds these events.

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Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

It is this, I think, which demonstrates the power of Nelson’s writing. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour: embedded quotations from the likes of Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed and Luce Irigaray appear throughout the book. Nelson is also comfortable expressing her insecurities and allowing the reader to see her working through her relationship with Dodge.

Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers”, you called them.

 

I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised in compassion, compassion disguised as anger.

Don’t you get it yet? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.

The Argonauts explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth.

Nelson juxtaposes ideas surrounding these topics with personal anecdotes, shifting seamlessly from one to another, circling around ideas returning to them again and again. She makes the structure appear effortless but this non-chronological weaving is difficult to pull off, but pull it off is exactly what she does, making the book compelling. I did, however, find myself pausing often to think through the points Nelson was making, she packs a significant amount into some of the shortest paragraphs.

Maggie Nelson is one of a number of female writers currently using the essay form in creative ways – Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Katherine Angel, to name a few – writing interesting, intellectual pieces exploring society/the political through the personal. The Argonauts is a welcome addition to this body of work. Rigorous and fascinating.

 

Thanks to Melville House UK for the review copy.

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7 thoughts on “The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

  1. Fantastic review, Naomi. I was in awe as I read the first excerpt you quoted here, so I’m now off to get a copy myself. I love the idea of quoting feminist academics with a memoir, because I think it is very, very difficult for those of us who read them to actually separate their theory from everyday life. Sometimes as I am performing small tasks or if I am looking at other people in the train I come up with lines and ideas from feminist theory and I ask myself if there is something terribly wrong with me, or if that’s what happens when you know/need theory to analyse the world.

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    • Thank you. Yes, I spend time linking things in my life with the theory I’ve read and internalised. Impossible not to. I knew when I started my undergrad degree that I’d never be able to read a book/watch a film without analysing it and now I can barely do anything without applying feminist critique to it. Generally that’s not a bad thing although it takes the enjoyment out of some popular entertainment which is inherently misogynistic (!)

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