Book Review / The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


“For me it was awe-inspiring, both a revelation and a challenge, and I am sure it will be so for many others.” Jan Allerton reviews The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


This novel has been acclaimed as ‘Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year’, and ‘A New York Times Bestseller, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism’.

For me it was awe-inspiring, both a revelation and a challenge, and I am sure it will be so for many others. What is astonishing is that Maggie Nelson has managed to combine a deeply poignant love story, a mothering saga, and well-researched academic conversations, with a scorching outline of the social and personal struggle to live freely in an intense relationship with a gender-fluid person. The title hints at the extraordinary journey her life has taken.

A key factor lies in the brilliant and vivid depiction of the narrator’s innermost feelings, ideas and humour, along with explicit details of sexual practices and violations, and her ability to economically bring other characters to life.

 

The range of academic reading, from Wittgenstein to Derrida to Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, to Winnicot, is employed as an essential element in any discussion, description or explanation.

In high school, a wise teacher assigned the short story “Wild Swans” by Alice Munro [who] lays it all out: How the force of one’s adolescent curiosity and incipient lust often must war with the need to protect oneself from disgusting and wicked violators, how pleasure can coexist with awful degradation…

I have never relied so much on Google, or re-read passages to find meaning in a dichotomous argument.

In an age all too happy to collapse the sodomitical mother into the MILF, how can rampart, “deviant” sexual activity remain the marker of radicality?

One of the most telling and informative issues is how to ensure the integrity of her love relationship in an ignorant, even hostile social environment.

When making your butch-buddy film [would it be he/him or she/her]…The point wasn’t that if the outer world were schooled appropriately… Because if the outsiders called the character ‘he’, it would be a different kind of he.

 I can’t ever remember reading such an open and honest account of emotions, thoughts and observations, mainly in the past tense, but sometimes, and most vividly, in the present tense, often ‘speaking’ directly to ‘you’, her partner.

The most moving area is the detailed exploration of her concerns before having a baby and whilst raising the child. As well as an intellectual and knowledgeable discussion, it provides any mother with poignant and joyful reassurance. One segment that would raise vivid memories for other birth mothers, is the description of the birth of her son, Iggy.

Commotion. I am gone but happy, something is happening. The doctor rushes in… He seems agitated but who cares… Everyone is watching down there intently, in a kind of happy panic.

 It is hard to imagine while reading Maggie Nelson’s masterpiece that she has self doubt.

My writing is riddled with tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither naive nor foreign to me.

But if the power of this work, or the brutal honesty about what some would find confronting, or indeed, that the intellectual and emotionally intimate writing would cast you, as a writer, into despair, take heart from the ending:

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, it’s ongoing song.

 


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