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Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’: A somehow disappointed review

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Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is all-the-rage right now. ‘Short & sweet’, it takes a form of a memoir, but rather than dragging the reader through her first memories as a child or the reminiscences of her mother’s perfume, it tells the story of her relationship with her transgendered partner Harry and her following pregnancy/motherhood. But it is also a love letter to her partner Harry, to whom she speaks directly in the form of “You” in many of the passages. Furthermore, it’s a good introduction to queer theory, as she samples from a reservoir of theorists and poets, such as Butler, Foucault, and Deleuze amongst many others, to back her thoughts through the narration.

The beginning of the book is also the best. She has just met Harry and she is lovesick. The depiction of falling-in-love as one of extreme loneliness. A point in time when it’s still too early to share the extremes of emotion and nothing feels certain, all the while she is imploding with an abundance of feelings. It seemed a very accurate portrayal of that condition.

Everything is in its right order and I want to shake the book for the opinions to rearrange themselves and for something that is just a tiny bit braver and a little less self-congratulatory than what it is now […]

Her project is to make the private public, which she comments on several times. The project is fantastic but the execution is a little… dull. Maggie Nelson is too nice, too tidy, too conservative. Everything just feels a little glossed over and I’m left with a creative, academic, smart, queer couple who are never unreasonable or a little squalid—it’s basically a story about a queer family that is mimicking the heteronormative nuclear family while being terribly nice. There are no teeth, and no friction, and I can see that the whole premise of the book might seem extremely provoking if you grew up in the bible belt, never left, and “Jesus is Lord” – but even then, this would meet you only halfway.

maggie-nelsonAlthough Maggie Nelson seems hyperaware of her surroundings and how she might be perceived through the text, it is ironic that Maggie and Harry make a baby, a boy, and they call him Iggy, but since they feel Iggy is too short a name, they’re trying to find a longer one that is abbreviation-friendly and they come up with Igasho, a Native American name, and for this they feel a little bad, the conscientious academics that they are. But not for long: They meet a Native American woman who gives them her blessing to use the name. Beautiful. Being aware of cultural appropriation is fine, but it gets a little tiresome when that becomes the issue all the while they are maintaining the structures of oppression just by drinking coffee every day. Oh, the hypocrisy.

Maybe this just goes to show that being in this world makes you complicit in the act of oppression of other people, no matter how good your intentions are. If you drink coffee, you support slavery, you only have your cellphone because there are children working in mines and the clothes you wear cost the workers their hands. But what we can control is what we name our baby and at least we don’t steal the names from those we systematically oppress and enslave.

And in this way, the book just doesn’t do enough of what it sets out to do, of making the private public. There is nothing not to “like”, and by like I mean the facebook thumbs up served with a neutral facial expression. Maggie Nelson, “the person”, is never truly exposed, rather, it is Maggie Nelson, “the academic”, who performs. In this sense, the book exceeds no limits but stays within its sphere of (white) academia. Nelson immunizes herself by using a grid of theorists to back her every opinion and she never turns against it but rather stays within what is easily defendable and digestible.

There is no denying that Maggie Nelson is extremely well-read and smart, so I had hoped for something more – that she would dig deeper and question the act of reproduction or the nuclear family. And does the book really have to end with birth replacing death? Here she mixes the times of two situations and makes them oscillate between giving birth to her son and Harry’s mother dying (and surprise, surprise: Birth and death are beautiful, fragile things).

Everything is in its right order and I want to shake the book for the opinions to rearrange themselves and for something that is just a tiny bit braver and a little less self-congratulatory than what it is now: A Carrie-Bradshaw-gone-queer-memoir in the style of something straight out of a women’s magazine.

And one last remark: Maggie Nelson has no faith in her audience or maybe she is a bit scared of it. By cracking exactly one joke in the entire book (about how long into the pregnancy abortions should be legal), she instantly tells her reader: *joke*. Thanks a lot. Or rather, maybe she is trying not to offend anyone, while at the same time she is engaging in a life that would offend certain people, to whom however she has obviously no interest in talking.

 

Giovanna, wildly gifted pedestrian, yet is able to remain humble. Would love to engineer a lovechild/super-breed author between Ben Lerner and Chris Kraus, but will also settle for a coffee table book with pictures of them and/or a documentary where they walk the Camino together.

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