There’s only a one letter difference between genre-bending and gender-bending. The first time I skimmed the press materials for Maggie Nelson’s newest book, The Argonauts (Graywolf, 2015), I mistook one phrase for the other. That misreading, though, isn’t incorrect. Nelson’s book, which knits together memoir and theory, bends both genre and gender in ways that reveal the fragility of such distinctions and the grander boundaries where we build narratives of difference and identity. There’s an intellectual rigor to Nelson’s interrogation of these categories, and it’s sustained by the buoyancy and vitality of her prose.
In the last several years, there’s been a renewed interest in personal and confessional writing; while women and queer writers have been writing in these modes for decades, writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard have brought it recently to a more literary mainstream audience. These are writers for whom the personal is political, writers who use the auto-confessional style to explore how their lived experiences fit into larger structures and systems. Claudia Rankine used this mode to explore her experience of race in America in her lyrical memoir, Citizen, from last winter. Chris Kraus too, who’s been mixing memoir and theory in her writing for the past couple decades, has in recent years gained a wide audience beyond her loyal cult following.
Here, in The Argonauts, Nelson uses the technique to explore her experience of queer family-making, queer theory, and psychoanalytic criticism. Nelson tells the story of her family from the beginning of her relationship with her partner Harry to the birth and naming of their child, Iggy. At the time, Nelson herself is pregnant while Harry is in the process of physically transitioning from female to male. It’s fundamentally a story about bodies in flux, which lends itself well to a visceral approach to the abstract.
The memoir’s sense of time is elliptical, and the plot meanders accordingly, rolling forward and circling back. Iggy first appears early in the book, sitting in a high chair, and then it’s about one hundred pages before Nelson goes into labor to birth him. The circular narrative allows Nelson’s questions to sit side by side, informing each other through their juxtaposition. What is queer? What is heteronormative? The categories bleed into each other, and, when Harry passes as male, Nelson’s family looks more and more the heterosexual ideal. Nelson wonders: Is pregnancy queer, “insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body?”
Theory doesn’t provide any easy answers, or even any at all. But lived experience, in all of its messiness, provides a context for understanding.
In this way, fragments of academic texts rub up against confessional details and domestic routines, connecting the experiences of Nelson’s family to a larger narrative of identity politics and radical theory. The Argonauts is littered with quotes from intellectuals like Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, and approaches theory from a place that privileges personal experience over disembodied knowledge. Between meditations on passages by Susan Sontag and D.W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst best known for his writings on child development, Nelson sandwiches the experience of watching her new baby crawl in the backyard, making sure he doesn’t put anything inappropriate in his mouth. “[On] all fours at the threshold of our backyard. … His soft little tongue, always whitened in the center from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell.” Sontag lets her access her desire for something more than theory—and erotics. But when it comes to what Nelson feels for her baby, she insists that of theory and erotics, “neither is dirty, neither is mirthful enough.” Neither manages to be completely encompassing.
Winnicott’s maternal psychoanalysis, on the other hand, gives Nelson a way to talk about ordinary devotion, the absolutely common feeling she has for her child. “You, reader,” she addresses us, “are alive today, reading this because someone adequately policed your mouth exploring.” Nelson strives to recover the maternal from being dismissed as merely ordinary, or worse, shameful.
The book’s most explicit example of this shaming comes in the form of a memory Nelson has of a graduate school seminar with comparative literature professor Jane Gallop and art critic Rosalind Krauss. With novelistic detail—Gallop is “droopy-eyed and louche” while Krauss is “feline” and “groomed”—Nelson recalls Gallop’s Barthesian reading of a slide show of her family photos, and how in response, “Krauss acted as though Gallop should be ashamed for trotting out naked pictures of herself and her son in the bathtub, contaminating serious academic space with her pudgy body and unresolved, self-involved thinking.” At the time, Nelson was neither a mother nor planned on being one, but she felt on Gallop’s side in the face of such shaming.
Over and over again, Nelson makes space for maternal love. She engages with the contradiction of how such an “utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.” Despite their banality, Nelson professes the importance of motherhood and pregnancy, suggesting that the things that make you feel the most deeply are worthy of scholarly or intellectual attention. Over and over again, she braids together feeling with thinking.
Nelson also makes a case for how we’re become accustomed to separating the two, giving evidence of how we collectively undervalue knowledge from lived experience. Her best example is her discovery, while pregnant, that men author all the best-selling maternity books. The mother may feel but the expert knows. It’s this idea of objective intellectual distance that Nelson dismantles with her own example of thinking and feeling.
In addition to reclaiming spaces for women to know and know better things they’ve felt first-hand, Nelson’s visceral approach makes the conceptual accessible. The poet Eileen Myles, whom Nelson has studied with, has called this mode of relating to academic texts from a personal or domestic position “vernacular scholarship.” Reading Deleuze can feel like drowning in an ocean, but Nelson’s domestic vignettes are a life preserver, something you can grab onto.
Near the beginning of the memoir, Nelson recalls the signs she’d pass on the way to work every day urging “Yes on Prop 8,” the 2008 California constitutional amendment that would eventually outlaw same-sex marriage in the state. In an environment where judgments come as often from church pamphlets and Prop 8 signs as from progressive friends and acquaintances, Nelson is continually challenging easy characterizations of “conservative” and “radical,” always asking “what kind of queer is this?”
A woman standing line for the bathroom makes a biting remark about straight women always liking Harry. Is she a straight woman? Nelson wonders. Nelson, too, is self-aware about her own urges to police what is queer. An artist friend appropriates the triangle-skirt imagery of the pro-Prop 8 campaign but reverses it to depict a lesbian family. “Who wants a Prop 8 poster but with two triangle skirts?” she asks. “Maybe Cathy does, Harry shrugged.”
Throughout, Nelson stews on whether or not queer is defined in opposition to heteronormativity. “As more queers have kids, will the presumed opposition simply wither away?” she asks. Though her book has more questions than answers, one comes away with the feeling that the danger in normalization is in becoming stagnant, in not continuing to ask these questions, in letting all categories—even those like “radical” and “queer”—become static.
While Nelson is quick to acknowledge the post-structuralist slipperiness of signs—“words are not good enough,” she writes, “Not only are they not good enough, they are corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow”—she shows how alchemy can happen, how stacking together all these sentences and paragraphs restores words from empty symbols to meaningfulness.
Similarly, lyrical isn’t good enough to describe Nelson’s language.When I was reading, certain sentences would take me by surprise, and my breath would catch in my chest. But for inspiring such a physical reading experience, Nelson herself seemed to lack physical form. Never once did I imagine her having a whole body. That seems a strange thing to say for a book so much about bodies. But Nelson describes everything from the inside out not the outside in. I didn’t have to imagine her body in space, but I did imagine the body parts she described, the rim of her fingernail or her postpartum belly. Nelson herself had anxieties about coming apart like this. She borrowed from Winnicott’s list of primitive agonies— “going to pieces” and “falling forever”—and these two phrases become a recurring motif. To suggest wholeness would perhaps be to suggest some sort of finality or crystallization. Instead, Nelson stays fluid without clearly defined boundaries.
It makes sense that in the past Nelson wrote a whole book about the color blue, Bluets. Gender and color are some of the most obvious examples of how you and I might mean totally different things when we use the same word, because they’re experienced subjectively enough to become complicated. Throughout The Argonauts, flux is offered as an alternative to restrictive binaries: male/female, normative/transgressive, hetero/queer, mother/scholar. Harry has surgery and starts taking testosterone. Nelson is four months pregnant. “It may have seemed as though your body as becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female,’” Nelson writes. “But… on the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness,” she continues. “In other words, we were aging.” Nelson’s only truth is change, and she’s able to imbue a real sense of it in her prose. Reading her words feels like watching the rush of a stream, or staring at the lights from a sea of cars driving down a highway at night. Above all else, Nelson champions transformation.
Although Nelson doesn’t say it in so many words, The Argonauts affirms that love is a radical act. The book’s title comes from Roland Barthes. In his writing, Barthes repeatedly refers to a ship—the Argo, which is replaced plank by plank by its crew—to speak of the tangible renewal of love each time the lover professes her love. Barthes goes on to say “the task of love and language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” Nelson and Harry’s relationship flows similarly, in that they’re always “moving, shape-shifting.” By inscribing the book “to Harry,” Nelson imbues The Argonauts with the fluid, radical love present in her relationship.
Of all the different voices Nelson uses to privilege change over any kind of stasis, her lover’s words are the ones that encapsulate all the other cursive sentences and paragraphs. “I’m not on my way anywhere,” Harry tells her. There is no resolution. His is a body in flux. After all the emotional and intellectual care Nelson puts into questioning these identities, Nelson comes to the conclusion that queerness is less about “same-sex” or an identity based in opposition to “hetero” and more about being honest with the constant state of becoming; it’s about forgoing the urge to resolve. “Sometimes,” Nelson writes, “the shit stays messy.” Through her flickering prose, Nelson reminds us that there is real pleasure in change.