Books

Review: The Argonauts

4 May 2016

Anthony Kuiper

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Maggie Nelson is an LA-based author, poet, art critic and lyrical essayist. Her most recent novel The Argonauts presents her life with her partner Harry Dodge and details her experiences of being a step-parent, giving birth and sharing with her partner in their grief after their mother’s death, and their experience of be a gender-fluid individual in a “culture frantic for resolution”.

There is so much to unpack and appraise here in Nelson’s memoir that this review will not do justice to all of it.

The text defies pigeonholing, and is something of a lyrical-prose memoir. Her prose here is so easy to read that it becomes an enjoyable experience of simply being washed over by her insights and her drawing together of ideas. She repeatedly references queer theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy and the works of other artists and situates their ideas within her own life.

An appraisal of Nelson’s text truly requires explicit exemplification.

In one example she introduces us to a note written by 20th Century poet, George Oppen about his wife: “Being with Mary; it has/been almost too wonderful/it is hard to believe”. Nelson then notes her own “hard season” with her partner, and it is clear that Nelson’s narrator – Nelson herself – feels with a keenly personal sense of chagrin, the disparity between her own relationship and that of the Oppen’s. Yet, Nelson looks for evidence that even the Oppen’s had struggles and hardships in their relationship, aware that she is in fact mirroring a search undertaken by New York essayist Leonard Michael, when he felt his marriage with Sylvia Bloch was a shameful anomaly. Her partner, Harry Dodge – whose contributions always lend a sobering, and at times heavy tone to the memoir – assumes that the Oppen’s difficulties “were probably just kept to themselves, out of… love for one another”.

Nelson has a pattern going where she uses multiple stories, and goes from talking about herself to injecting the ideas of others and then moving all of this over to her partner:

I have long been lucky enough to feel real, no matter what diminishments or depressions have come my way. And I have long known that the moment of queer pride is a refusal to be ashamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you. [Ahmed]

So why did your ex’s dig about playing house sting so bright?

This movement feels disorienting at first but soon becomes quite engrossing, and I felt over time like I was being let into the lives of all of these people.

The above section perfectly highlights Nelson’s command of her prose and the very real, very candid connection it achieves with the reader, especially queer readers. I found myself, and my experiences being directly spoken to by Nelson, and conversely I was myself deeply invested in her partnership and her life as well.

Nelson weaves stories of other people and their ideas into her own life, which subsequently provides the arresting perspective that, her story, their stories, our stories – stand side by side and are interconnected. Nelson really achieves a sense that we are not just our own lived experiences but also a product of our empathy for the experiences of others that reach us through their written works.

The Argonauts is Nelson’s ninth novel.

This book was provided by Text Publishing