The Short Version: Part memoir, part theory exploration, part prose-poem, part theory creation – The Argonauts is the story of Maggie Nelson’s courtship with and marriage to Harry Dodge, her pregnancy, a country’s evolving mind on gender and sexuality, and a look at the theory that has created a single human’s worldview.
The Review: There is such a joy in discovering something to be not only worthy of the hype, but worthy of continued generation of that hype. So it is with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a form-busting book par excellence. It is theory, it is memoir, it is practice, it is maybe even lightly fictional at times – or not fictional so much as auto-fictional; an interpretation of a moment that actually happened but in terms of that might, to someone else who lived through that same moment, look flawed or skewed past reality. It is a singular reading experience and one that compels the reader to engage more deeply with the world at large.
My previous experience with Maggie Nelson came at the urging of Stephanie Danler (Sweetbitter) for an episode of So Many Damn Books: we read Bluets, which has grown into one of my favorite reads of all time. It was the first non-poetry collection (and still only one of two books [this being the other] not explicitly dealing with poetry) that I’ve post-it-noted like I do poetry collections. Because even though it was not written as poetry as we traditionally understand poetry… it had a spirit of poesy. The Argonauts goes even further into this unclassifiable realm, reading unlike any theory you’ve ever read before but also being at its core a prose book.
But does the book need to be classified? I suppose, for bookstores, it might. But I’ll put it on my poetry shelf, right next to Bluets on the one side and Ben Lerner’s The Hated of Poetry on the other – because that’s what feels right. And Nelson seems to’ve intended exactly this – because the form and the content are, here, intertwined. She’s writing, after all, about the fluidity of gender and sex and sexuality and the radical explosion of the classical idea of “family” to one that is more open, more accepting, more diverse in every possible way. Of course she’s going to bust open some genre norms while she’s at it.
I read this book with my BookClub and had an eye-opening moment when, as we went around giving our initial thoughts, I spoke too broadly on behalf of my quintet. I said something like “well, we’re all pretty well-versed in at least the broad terms of feminism and gender-theory and the LGBT movements, but I imagine this book would be rather eye-opening for people who aren’t so steeped” – and then one of our members, when their time came, said “actually, I’m one of those people who isn’t so steeped – and this was eye-opening for me.” This person is deeply culturally engaged, immensely empathic and open-hearted, and they spoke further about how this was their first real insight into the trans community, into deeper areas of the feminist community, and into the broader gender theory world – and I was, although they did not intend this, a little chastened. After all, hadn’t I just read a book that pointedly brings to light the idea that we almost can’t ever know other people’s experiences and we often make fools of ourselves when we try to do so?
In this way, the book continued (and still continues) to work on me even after I finished it. Even when I felt like I was in command of the references she was making and the things she was discussing – about issues and topics that spin far afield from my own life experience, be it transitioning or pregnancy or the death of a parent – I still felt like I was working, like my brain was activated, while I read this book because Nelson demanded that I keep up. Yes, I understood the circumstances of Prop 8 – but I didn’t know the personal story set down here, the underpinnings of this or that theorist that Nelson cites to better make sense of her own thoughts in the moment. Sure, I’m aware of the struggles that same-sex couples face as well as the struggles faced by transgender individuals – but I didn’t have a clue as to the real complications and roadblocks and obstructions they face on a daily basis. I knew Harry Dodge was an artist and roughly about the work of these various critics and theorists and people Nelson cites… but not well enough to stand on my own about them. I had to be paying attention because otherwise the rope might slip – and that was a terrific reading experience, even as the book operated simultaneously on a beautiful emotional level. I’ve never come so close to understanding the messiness of pregnancy and giving birth, to understanding gender fluidity, to understanding what it means to be a woman in this world.
Even as Nelson relentlessly and wonderfully chronicles the messy, lovely, very real lives that she and Harry lead – and that alone would be enough to shout this book from the rooftop – I can’t get away from the fact that this is the most daring book, structurally, that I’ve read in a very long time. We are taught, all of us who have even the barest of American secondary school educations, about the evils of “plagiarism” and we are instructed rather brutally to cite everything, to give credit where credit is due, to make sure that there’s no possible way that our work could be misinterpreted as having been stolen from someone else. So it is pretty fucking radical to read a book that is chock-full of other people’s words… but for these quotes to be interpolated directly into the text, cited not via extensive foot-or-end-notes but instead off to the side, in the margin, with just an italicized name. Sometimes it’s not even a full name and just the last name. Sometimes the quotes are italicized or in quotation marks but sometimes they’re melded right into Nelson’s writing. And I’ll admit, I heard the ghosts of my English teachers screaming out in horror while I read – but this progressive interpretation of citation is absolutely brilliant. After all, we are a collection of influences, especially those of us in the cultural sphere. We speak in references not just to philosophers and scholars but to TV shows and movies and comics – just as Nelson, in this book, cites an exchange from X-Men: First Class with the same weight and reverence as she does quotes from Gertrude Stein, Roland Barthes, and Eileen Myles. She has, for the first time at least in my experience, captured the modern intellectual discourse on the page in its truest and most polyglottal form. I do not exaggerate when I say that nothing, for me, will ever be the same.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Nelson keeps referencing, throughout the book, the “ship of Theseus” paradox – the question of if a ship, while on its journey, is rebuilt piece by piece, is it the same ship by the time it gets home? – and uses it to refract questions of love, identity, citizenship, artistry, and more. She blends this idea so deeply into her own writing, with citations that are not so much cited as they are briefly clocked and otherwise fully enmeshed in her own sentences, that it suffuses the entire book and so we are left pondering several layers of this theory about the Argo. How do we change? What does it mean that we “stay the same”? Can we ever truly know ourselves if we’re constantly in some sort of flux? How can I be a good human being?
These questions are given fullest expression here but I see them across Nelson’s work – and they compel me when considered by Nelson, as a reader and a thinker and a human, in ways that few other authors have ever achieved. This is another mandatory text for simply functioning as a human being in our modern society. If you haven’t read it yet, get on the train.