The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

1 Comment

Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

One response to “The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

  1. I liked your review a lot, and shared many of your positive reactions. But I felt she relied way too much on theory, quoted too much of that kind of abstruse gobbledegook. At least for my liking. The way she wrote about her own experience was searingly powerful. I wish she’d left most of the theory out, kept it as background juice during the writing process rather than weakening her otherwise powerful text with so much of it. But that’s just my two cents’ worth.🙂

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