A review of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Argonauts
By Maggie Nelson
Greywolf Press
January 2016, Paperback: 160 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1555977351

Let me start this review right off by saying that Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts blew my mind. This book breaks open every literary boundary, and it does it so in a way that never interferes with the book’s readability. The Argonauts is presented as a memoir, and it is an intensely intimate exploration of Nelson’s relationship with her partner, filmmaker Harry Dodge, as well as an exploration of their marriage, of pregnancy and parenthood. But even as the book draws the reader deeply into Nelson’s story, it questions its own form, creating a quilt-like collage that refers to and draws in other works like an academic thesis, uses poetic vignettes, and always explores the broader, generalised meaning of what she’s writing about, without ever losing the very personal intimacy.

The book is so full of contradiction that the dialectical becomes the norm: a clash of multiplicity that is beautiful. For example, Nelson’s general tone is cool and analytical, but infused with romantic love, pain, desire, confusion and even a kind of joy. The passages, which have plenty of space around them, sometimes begin a section with a date, as if this were a diary, and then slides into second person. The “you” of the book is both Dodge and the reader, alternating as subject, and it’s both warm and confronting. In addition, Nelson brings in a great deal of literary and philosophical theory, but again, so smoothly integrated into the text, with credits placed as little more than names at the sidebar, that the thought becomes integrated. The words of those being cited, and there are many – from Emerson to Carson, William James to Juia Kristeva, are entirely incorporated into the memoir as part of the character arc, the plot, the progression. It might seem like this would make the book dense, but it’s not dense at all, instead these thoughts become inherent, enriching, and easily absorbed into the multiplicity of the text. We take these voices, this extended play between the history of ideas and lived experience, as comfortable and natural:

The presumptuousness of it all. On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live. (66)

In one of the most stunning moments in the book, Nelson interposes the birth of her son Iggy with the death of Dodge’s mother, using first person italics for Dodge’s passages. The passages alternate: life and death moving in concert like strophe and antistrophe. Throughout this section, the reader knows that the baby will get born, and Dodge’s mother will die. In fact these things have already happened in the book. Yet there is the most dramatic, breathtaking suspense, as we move through these two climaxes of joy and pain in such different but conjoined ways:

At the bottom, which one can’t quite know is the bottom, one reckons. I’ve heard a lot of women describe this reckoning (it might also be called nine centimeters), at which one starts bargaining hard, as if striking a deal to save your conjoined lives…

at a certain pint i woke up. i listened for her breath which i heard after a moment. much shallower, faster. i became alert, just then the AC unit went on, aurally overtaking the sound of her. (162-3)

Throughout the book there is a tension around what it means to get to Truth without forcing Truth to be something fixed, and therefore inherently dishonest. This is particularly difficult when we are representing others, or what Nelson calls the relationship between writing and holding:

How can a book be both a free expression and a negotiation? Is it not idle to fault a net for having holes? (57-58)

Though there’s much about the book that could be (and has been) called radical, in terms of the way the book resists any kind of classification and subverts definitions that have long had specific meanings associated with them, and in terms of the dramatic physical transformations that are undergone by the characters through the book. Yet what comes through for me is how tender and universal a love story The Argonauts is. Though I’d hate to limit the book to a single idea or overarching theme, since it cuts across so many areas of meaning, but above all, I found the book to be  about love in all of its many forms: romantic, parental, friendship, the love of literature, and the love of ideas. These things are often not separate types of love, but one and the same thing: the “ongoing song” that makes something of nothing. As Nelson says in her acknowledgements, it is “an infinite conversation, an endless becoming.”