Book Review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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Maggie Nelson has been on my literary radar since I stumbled head-first and brokenhearted into her poetry collection ‘Bluets.’ I loved the way Nelson bent genre, her poetry often turning into prose and then veering back into the abstracts of poetic language once again. That book changed me. In fact, I’d argue that reading it inspired me to dabble in my own poetry, something I really gravitated toward during my busy two years of graduate school when the prose just wasn’t coming to me. Nelson’s excellent and mind-bending collection focused on the color blue, and how the color has always been a favorite of hers. The book plays with research and journalism- Nelson brings in outside sources and seemingly obscure references constantly, furthering her own personal assertions on the color blue. And quietly, she ties in her own personal story of heartbreak, and how the color blue both healed and crucified her: “I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

I’ve been excited to read more of Nelson; she’s become one of those writers, like Munro, whom I save for later, longing and yet nervous to eat her entire breadth of work in one sitting. I don’t want there to come a day in which I have no more Nelson material to look forward to.

The Argonauts again displays Nelson’s playful and inquisitive writing style; the book, mostly creative non-fiction, parlays with journalism and literary criticism, balancing again Nelson’s personal story of motherhood and step-motherhood and monogamous romantic partnership with research into gender identity theory, the concept of motherhood and caretaking, and more. Within the first three pages of the book, Nelson reveals the main subject of her story: her relationship with Harry. Nelson begins with the revelation of love between the two, describing their stark disagreements regarding the use of expression via vocalization/verbalization: “And you- whatever you argued, you never mimed a constricted throat. In fact you ran at least a lap ahead of me, words streaming in your wake. How could I ever catch up (by which I mean, how could you ever want me?”

There’s something so incredibly romantic about using the second person voice, and Nelson employs it only in the sections of her book that are her personal story. I love and admire the way she employs spacing and the white space of the page to convey movement. “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.'” Here is how Nelson arrived at the title of her book: The Argonauts. They were a group of heroes in Greek mythology who were so loyal to their ship, named The Argo, that they renewed their love for it by continuous journeys. Nelson uses this metaphor throughout the book, sometimes a bit highhandedly (I honestly lose track of the metaphor at times and paused every time The Argo was mentioned, asking myself what it was- maybe she didn’t spend enough time nailing down this metaphor? I definitely don’t think it’s clear enough to be made the title).

You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you. It had been a useful solitude… But the time for its puncturing had come. I feel I can give you everything without giving myself away, I whispered in your basement bed. If one does one’s solitude right, this is the prize.”

This is my favorite passage in the book. I too have discovered an infinite love after living in a pleasant, happy solitude. I can still feel that blissful solitude, too, even within my relationship. This is a beautiful passage, and it had me absolutely hooked. I couldn’t wait to get more of this material, the kind that was abundant in Bluets. But sadly, The Argonauts provides us with very few passages like this. Nelson deliberately avoids talking about her own intimacies, a main theme of the book being her inner debate about letting things exist in privacy or giving them a literary scene. And while I respect this sentiment, and have faced this same debate within myself, I can’t help but feel disappointed throughout. We lose this main thread in the book, and at times we feel bogged down by statistic or quotation or rumination on some seemingly abstract aspect of motherhood, of identity. It’s sometimes hard connecting these moments to the intimate ones- it isn’t as seemless as Bluets was.

What if where I am is what I need? Before you I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.”

Nelson spends time describing her relationship with Harry, and the ways the two of them severely disagreed. She spends time developing their relationship for the reader, but this development between the two of them becomes peripheral after page 30. I still love the moments we do get it though: “During our hard season, I thought a lot about this fragment. At times it filled me with an almost sadistic urge to unearth some kind of evidence that George and Mary had been unhappy, even if at moments- some sign that his writing might have ever come between them, that they didn’t understand each other in some profound way, that they had ever exchanged ugly words, or differed on major decisions… So others lived this way, too. Every couple, every marriage, was sick.” This, too, makes extreme sense to me. There’s a paranoia that exists inside of me every time I argue with my partner, a fear that perhaps we’ve crossed a line from which we will never recover. I don’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ for a relationship, for a coupling. But maybe no one does.

We know from almost the start that Nelson has her own child, a boy named Iggy, with Harry. At times we see Iggy asleep on Nelson’s chest, a short paragraph describing his scent or the ways in which their intimacy has shocked her. And then we’re transported back in time to Iggy’s creation, the road Nelson and Harry had to travel to make Iggy possible. I appreciate this- the hindsight, the unromantic view of the reality of the situation. And I love the idea that Nelson is almost reassuring her past self that the difficulties, the arguments, the seemingly impossible divides in her relationship, were worth it. It’s a champion’s tale, in a way.

A large part of Nelson’s The Argonauts focuses on Harry’s gender identity. We witness Harry getting testosterone shots, see him undergo surgery to remove his breasts. And we feel Nelson’s respect and adoration for her partner’s decisions, while also feeling her nervousness, her confusion; she’s as close as she can be but yet not there. It’s impossibly hard to be a good partner. “Can fragility feel as hot as bravado? I think so, but sometimes struggle to find the way Whenever I think I can’t find it, Harry assures me that we ca. And so we go on, our bodies finding each other again and again, even as they- we- have also been right here, all along.”

Nelson also explores what being a step-parent means, as she becomes step-mom to Harry’s son. She struggles to gain footing in this identity, struggles to find the correct amount of caretaking to give. We then witness Nelson and Harry embark on IF treatments to get pregnant, a long and tiresome journey that was more than frustrating for Nelson. Eventually, the two use a friend’s sperm and become pregnant. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Maggie discovers that she is carrying a boy; it’s another moment that the book freeflows into long questions of gender identity and how to be supportive while giving this being its own life, its own choices. Nelson has a deep awareness of herself and her own limitations, her own fears- it makes her a tremendous writer.

“But whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn’t all of it. I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again- not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Nelson writes snippets of her agonizingly long birth, explains the pain in a somehow nuanced way, and also the joy. She tells us, briefly, that Iggy contracted a severe toxin that made him hospital-bound during infancy. “When Iggy had the toxin and we lay with him in his hospital crib, I knew- in a flood of fear and panic- what I know now, in our blessed return to the land of health, which is that my time with him has been the happiest time of my life. Its happiness has been of a more palpable and undeniable and unmitigated quality than any I’ve ever known. For it isn’t just moments of happiness, which is all I thought we got. It’s a happiness that spreads.”

Nelson goes back and forth with whether or not writing to a future Iggy is a good idea. She’s cautious of the tropes of motherhood. At the end, though, she does give this paragraph: “I want you to know, you were thought of as possible- never as certain, but always as possible- not in any single moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling- when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding- two human animals, one of whim is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female, deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.”

The end of the book sees Nelson return to her beginning metaphor of The Argonauts. She again references mythology: “When all the mythologies have been set aside, we can see that, children or no children, the joke of all evolution is that it is a teleology without a point, that we, like all animals, are a project that issues in nothing. But is there really such a thing as nothing, as nothingness? I don’t know. I know we’re still here, who knows for how long, ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.”

I wanted this ending to be stronger. I don’t think the mythological metaphor is earned. The strongest parts of the book are her intimacies with Harry, her intimacies with Iggy. I wish I didn’t lose the thread of her attempted metaphor but I do, and it leaves me a bit unsatisfied (note that I also had HUGE expectations because of Bluets). I’m such a fan of Maggie Nelson- I can’t wait to read another of hers soon.

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