Book Review: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

In my experience, books with domestic settings tend to have fairly limited scopes, each event an anecdote that gives insight to no more than a character’s personal motivation. The intimate feeling of these texts often forces authors to sacrifice overarching commentary or meaning. In her book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson defies this tradition, making domestic staples like marriage and motherhood feel large, complex, and connected to larger philosophical questions, without ever losing the intimacy of her predecessors.

This interconnectedness is perhaps the only constant in the book, which follows a meandering structure devoid of traditional markers of form, like chapters or sections. Even Nelson’s paragraphs don’t begin with indentations, and rather than using quotation marks to differentiate words that aren’t her own, she simply italicizes them. These formatting decisions, paired with Nelson’s tendency to bounce between times, events, and even genres of writing, gives the impression of reading a conversation or stream of consciousness.

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Nicole/" title="View all of this person's work">"Nicole</a></span>

graphic by Nicole Ng

Persistent questioning of her own experiences and opinions dictate the structure more than anything; if a digression into theory becomes necessary to frame a discussion about the newest X-Men movie, then theory it is. If a graduate school experience has shaped her understanding of an art exhibit, she takes readers back to grad school. The root of most questions she addresses deals with the language she uses and how it dictates her understanding of the world. On the first page of the book, she recounts a discussion about the idea that “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed,” and that therefore, “words are good enough.” She questions this concept, an idea she once stood by, here and throughout the book, forcing me to take a close look at the words I use and the way they shape, and sometimes limit, my experiences.

While many critics have described it as “genre-bending,” readers might initially characterize The Argonauts as a memoir. Nelson preempts this oversimplified label though, describing herself at book events as “in drag as a ‘memoirist’, appearing to be one at first glance, but actually quite a bit more. Looking at the fields of study of the authors she references gives the best sense of the scope of her book: Donald Winnicott, a 19th century psychoanalyst; Roland Barthes, a French philosopher; James Schuyler, a poet; Freud, a psychoanalyst; and countless others.

Her deft connection of their seemingly disparate subjects, rather than blurring each to the point of confusion, sharpened my understanding of each of them by adding nuance and practical application. This is especially true in her treatment of gender theory, a field home to notoriously tricky texts that rarely spend more than a few words outside of the totally theoretical. The narrative aspect of the text focuses on Nelson’s relationship with her gender-fluid partner and the way that their relationship both defies and conforms to American domestic expectation. As queer partners, their family and even existence have not always been legal, but Nelson’s pregnancy forces her to grapple with the ways that she fulfills a stereotypical role as an American mother.  Nelson consistently reveals the holes in this type of dichotomy—assimilation and revolution, the expressible and the inexpressible, male and female— through an exploration of her personal experiences with them as well as the history and theory that surrounds them.

A less-skilled writer may have become bogged down in the academic aspects of the text, muddling the synthesis and confusing the free-flowing structure, but The Argonauts is a quick and surprising relevant read. The titular ship, the Argo, has its parts replaced one by one over the course of its journey, not undergoing a single transformation but ending its journey with none of the parts it started with; readers can expect The Argonauts to similarly transform their thinking.

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