By Maggie Nelson
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Maggie Nelson has been having a big couple of years, ever since 2009's Bluets rocketed her into the literary consciousness. I'm new to her, having just picked up Bluets a month ago, but that was one of the most thorough and affecting pieces of creative nonfiction I've yet had the pleasure of reading. So when I heard that the Argonauts was supposed to be another excellent piece, perhaps her best yet, I figured I had to get it. I wasn't disappointed, either. Like Bluets, the Argonauts sees Maggie Nelson working in fragments, and what she gets out of it is a powerful and shifting puzzle of a book that I can already tell will demand multiple readings before I'm able to fully parse it. Still, I'm happy with even my limited understanding of it.
Nelson loves to work in hybrid forms, which I suppose puts her right on the cutting edge of literature, if you're into that sort of thing. While her most famous works have been nonfiction, sometimes more creative (this and Bluets), sometimes academic (check out 2011's great Art of Cruelty), she loves to skirt the boundary between categories. This isn't quite the poetry/philosophy/memoir extravaganza Bluets was, but it's close. Part of what lends the Argonauts its power is how Nelson merges aspects of philosophy with her personal experience, which allows her to put the ideas of thinkers like Deleuze and Steinem into practice, which in turn allows her to answer the common question "what does philosophy have to do with the real world?" In the case of identity politics, the answer is "quite a lot."
The Argonauts centers on Nelson's own relationship with a transgender man. While she uses this relationship as a vehicle to challenge gender norms and present alternative family models, including passages about her attempts to wed Harry before Harry received SRS, she also gives herself the chance to talk about her love for Harry; several of this book's fragments are breathless and often frankly sexual passages addressed directly to Harry. The book takes its title from the idea that the mythological Argonauts could replace every part of their famous ship and it would still be called "the Argo," and it's clear that Nelson feels the same way about her husband. Coupled with passages about her relationship with Harry's son from a previous marriage, you've got an affecting work that explodes with life and emotion. That logic, that sense of center and identity, also speaks to the book itself. You can put whatever center you want on it, gender or critical theory, motherhood memoir or love story or political commentary, and it's still an excellent book.
Of course, there's more to it than that. Nelson fits a lot into these hundred fifty pages, and I think she had fun seeing how much she could fit around her theme. She debunks Freud, calls fear-mongering politicians out, calls out petty academic squabbles, draws on the world's reactions to her relationship and her reactions to their reactions, and spends the last several pages with two of her most vivid mini-stories ever: a horrifying story about a man who stalked her based on one of her books and a joyous portrayal of the birth of her first child. It's hard to explain how it all fits together - gender seems like the obvious way to go, but I feel like there's more - but the point is I feel it harder than many other books I've read from 2015.
Did I mention that it's funny? No one does dry humor like Maggie Nelson.
Out of 10: 10.0