Maggie Nelson’s new memoir, The Argonauts, is diaristic, but its effect is that of a diary reconstructed in retrospect, its timeline jumbled. The book proceeds in fragments that veer from Nelson’s life, in particular her love and family life, into theoretical terrain that’s home turf for many educated in the ’80s and ’90s — the lit-crit equivalent of a well-curated post-punk jukebox.
The title comes from a passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: The French critic writes that someone who says “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” So the Argo is always the Argo no matter how many of its parts are replaced, and, according to Barthes, “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” It’s a mark of Nelson’s intellectual style that she takes just what she needs of the idea of the Argonaut — that is, Barthes’s idea about Jason’s ship — and lets the rest of the Argo myth be. There’s no quest for a Golden Fleece in her book, no Orpheus, Heracles, or Philoctetes among her Argonauts, certainly no Medea in the picture.
Instead there’s a family — Nelson, her partner Harry Dodge, their son Iggy, and Dodge’s son from a previous relationship — and a lot of heavy-duty thinking about the ways American society now embraces or resists families that don’t resemble the ones we remember from 1950s sitcoms. When they first meet, Nelson isn’t sure what pronoun to use for Harry, born a biological female, who over the course of The Argonauts will transition with top surgery and testosterone treatment, ultimately passing among men (until, in awkward moments, they see a driver’s license or a credit card). Googling doesn’t help the problem. Nelson finds that John Waters, who directed Harry in Cecil B. Demented, says, “She’s very handsome.” He turns out to be the right word, though for Nelson the one that sounds best is you. The love affair alters Nelson’s very sense of language: “Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! in the expressed,” Nelson writes. “How can the words not be good enough?” If trading quotations from Barthes and arguing about Wittgenstein isn’t your idea of romance, bear in mind that Nelson is frank (and funny and unpretentious and above all enthusiastic) about the couple’s ass-fucking and Harry’s “pile of cocks.” The couple also watch X-Men: First Class in bed and debate whether it’s better to be an assimilationist or a revolutionary. Are they fated to homonormativity?
Nelson is the author of nine books, four of them poetry. The last two — a lyric essay, Bluets (2009), and a critical study, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning— have gained her first a cult and then a general readership. But a wider audience hasn’t dulled her edge. It must be a daunting task to write her jacket copy, because it’s something she’s done a bit of thinking about. In The Art of Cruelty, amid a consideration of the boundaries between facts and truth and the way honesty is often discussed in terms of violence, Nelson writes, “I go down to the bookstore and skim shiny new memoir jacket after shiny new memoir jacket after shiny new memoir jacket, until my mind starts to blur with blurb-speak testifying to each writer’s brutal honesty, which is usually a close cousin of his or her ‘searing’ or ‘unsentimental’ prose, which, to be truly praiseworthy and dazzling, must also somehow shimmer onto the page “without a drop of self-pity.’” In that book, Nelson roams between canonical avant-garde works, Hollywood schlock, and very recent digital realms (pornography not excluded) at the frontiers of polite taste, often reveling in her ambivalence about her subjects’ ethical valences, comfortable in the mainstream and on the fringe (or pulling the fringe into the mainstream). It’s a graceful dance of mixed feelings about representations of violence. Readers of the highly personal Bluets might have thought there was one thing missing: a view of the dancer herself. The new book is a return to the hybrid mode, and advances an argument for it.
Two words stick out on the back of The Argonauts, and I’m not talking about fierce or intrepid — why does it always seem that editors and publicists (and critics) are sending books off to war, or to the Olympics? The first word is autotheory. Not quite a neologism, it doesn’t have much of a life outside of academic writing. At first glance you might assume it refers to building a theory of the self, but what Nelson’s up to is something more like deploying her own experience as an engine for thinking that spins out into the world and backwards and forwards in time. An anecdote about being turned away from a burlesque show when Nelson and Harry come with the baby in tow leads into queer theory, then to Freud’s Wolf Man (who as a boy saw his father fucking his mother from behind), then to the theory of “the sodomitical mother,” i.e. one for whom sex isn’t strictly or ultimately or mostly (or ever) a procreative activity. (In Nelson’s life, nothing goes unexamined.) In a neat bit of typesetting, Nelson incorportates italicized lines from Eula Biss, Judith Butler, T.J. Clark, Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parent, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michel Foucault, Eileen Myles, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Susan Sontag, and many others into her prose, citing them unobtrusively in the margins. She also has strong words for “the voices that pass for radicality in our times,” Jean Baudrillard, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek — in her view, reproductive technophobes about as radical as redwood trees.
And radical is the other flap copy word that jars on the back of The Argonauts, in what’s advertised as “Nelson’s insistence on radical individual freedom.” But it’s a word Nelson herself feels uneasy with. At an Oakland pride march, she picks up an anti-assimilationist pamphlet that reads, “We want to find you, comrade, if this too is what you want./For the total destruction of capitalism, bad bitches who will fuck your shit up.” “I’ve never been able to answer to comrade, or share in this fantasy of attack,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s the word radical that needs rethinking.” Meanwhile, the homophobes are on the march. Nelson and Harry marry in 2008 the day before Prop 8 is passed in California, outlawing same-sex marriage, and the hillsides are dotted with placards celebrating stick-figure heterosexual couples. Which side is the more radical one, hers or the right-wingers’? If it’s Nelson, hers is a radicalism that looks like the future of common sense.
Not to say the book is all arguments of one kind or another. There’s not a lot of drama in The Argonauts, but some things do happen. Nelson refers to a “hard season” for her and Harry. There’s a tense moment when he reads a draft of the book’s manuscript. In the background, there’s Harry’s embittered ex-partner who derides Nelson for “playing house” as a stepmother, and a fellow party guest early on who asks if she’s been with other women before and tells her, “Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.” There’s the slog of getting pregnant via IVF and cheaper “off-roading.” There’s the Argo “summer of our changing bodies” in 2011, with Nelson pregnant and Harry on T injections and getting surgery. There’s a stirring climax that alternates Nelson’s account of childbirth with Harry’s messages from her mother’s deathbed. “All happy families are alike,” a straight man once said, and the Argonauts are a happy family, hyperintellectual, fun-loving, given to dancing. But that isn’t to say The Argonauts isn’t a singular book.