Sometimes—often, if you’re lucky—you’ll read a book you want to share with the world, the kind of book whose praises you sing to family, friends and coworkers. The kind of book you gift so indiscriminately come Christmas—”and YOU get a copy! and YOU get a copy!”—that loved ones are convinced you must be making a cut of the proceeds. For me those books come few and far between; in the last 12 months I’d say only The Martian and We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves qualify (and you’re welcome). But it would be a mistake to assume that the accessible books are the most memorable, or the most important. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts isn’t a share-with-the-world type of book, but it’s one of the most elegant and insightful things I’ve read in recent memory.
I should start out by admitting that I am a Nelson virgin, and further that I’m not intellectual or academic or literary enough to know whether that’s something to be, if not ashamed of, then distressed by. But there’s something pure about going into a book as intimate as The Argonauts knowing nothing of its author or her prior work. TA is a love story of sorts, told in snippets of thought and anecdote interspersed with heavy philosophizing—and quoting of philosophers and other intellectuals—on such subjects as love, gender, sexuality, parenting, feminism and identity. If that sounds like a freshman seminar in Women’s Studies, it should—except Nelson does it with such nuance and efficiency that one never feels overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge, or browbeaten by dogma. Her story is personal, which makes her vulnerable in telling it, which makes any invocation of philosophy more inquisitive than pretentious.
When it comes to those overwrought and needlessly controversial subjects—gender identity and sexual preference in particular—Nelson is a pro, often winnowing sweeping societal complications into 100-word nuggets of wisdom, the kind of nuggets you want to want to print out and laminate and hand out to people still hung up on who’s sleeping with whom in which gender’s bathroom:
How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way.* I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., “gender hackers”)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?
Nelson’s observational laser beam is equal-opportunity. She turns it on the LGBT community as often as she does the straight one, and most of The Argonauts’ philosophizing is born of her real-life relationship with artist Harry Dodge (just “Harry” in TA) and his distinctive perspective on these same issues. Harry is in many ways the book’s most fascinating and most important character (i.e. IRL person), a reserved and succinct and subtly astute voice of reason in a swirl of conflicting ideas and ideologies.
The Argonauts is both easy to read and not: It’s short, and broken up into digestible paragraphs, but deceptively dense. Nelson is exploring heavy themes here: Freud makes more than a few appearances; the phrase “sodomitical maternity” is used. This is not an easy book, because these are not easy questions. That Nelson addresses so many of them so well in 140 pages is a testament to her talent. Likewise, for those with the inclination, TA is a slim crash course in the current state of gender and sexual theory, an entire education packed into fewer pages than a Kindle Single.
I can’t recommend this book to everyone…but I want to. I want to recommend it to aging acquaintances whose Facebook statuses suggest they’re still holding tight to decades of identity politics. I want to recommend it to teachers and parents and anyone with the opportunity to be a force for good in the life of a confused child (or parent). I want to recommend it to anyone who’s ever underestimated the importance of people from diverse backgrounds and identities simply telling their stories, even if those people sometimes have the unfortunate honor of being connected to Kim Kardashian. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson not only tells her story, but elevates it into something greater: a free-association deep dive into the complexities of being and loving in the modern world. It’s a pleasure and also a relief to know that in the growing chorus of LGBT (but also female and mother and overall human being) voices, Nelson’s is breaking through.
TITLE: The Argonauts
AUTHOR: Maggie Nelson
PAGES: 143 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Age of Cruelty, Bluets
SORTA LIKE: Dept. of Speculation meets Joan Didion as a philosopher
FIRST LINE: “October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes.”