The Argonauts29 Apr 2016
In a few of the reviews I’ve read of The Argonauts, reviewers tend to describe Maggie Nelson’s writing as “defying definition.” Allow me to try anyway. The book reads like it is perpetually in the middle of the most interesting conversation you’ve had in years. It can at once make you feel like you’re in office hours with one of your favorite professors, or having beers with a friend you respect, or remembering a conversation you had in your formative years that forever changed your world view about a topic.
The Argonauts has been described as a book about motherhood, but it is more than that. It is part criticism, part poetry, part memoir, but perhaps overall a book about love. You can piece together a narrative, even though there’s no plot (if that doesn’t speak to the quality of writing, I don’t know what more to tell you). I haven’t read a lot of queer theory, I’m passingly familiar with it, but this was a great introduction to some of the most interesting issues of identity at play in that literary/critical tradition. Lest that make the experience sound too clinical, I also cared about the author and the people in her life. As someone who builds meaning from both emotion and intellectualism, Nelson’s approach to making meaning from her experiences spoke to me greatly.
In addition to these attributes, my favorite part of the book was the lack of certainty. There is no resolution in the book about gender, marriage, parenthood, professionalism, family, sex, child-birth, death. What we get instead is a window into the mind of a smart woman dealing with all these things in the modern world. She engages with writers, with the institutions as they exist in her life, with her own reservations, with the thoughts and feelings of her partner, all the competing interests in her life.
I have a long list of authors and works I’m going to check out as a result of reading this book (I loved the citations right next to the text), but none with more urgency than more of Nelson’s work.