Published by Macmillan on May 5, 2015
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Gender Studies, LGBT, Personal Memoirs
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family. Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author's relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson's account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making. Writing in the spirit of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Nelson binds her personal experience to a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender, and the vexed institutions of marriage and child-rearing. Nelson's insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry of this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.
Whoa, The Argonauts is philosophical and deep. It took me a few pages to get into it, but once I got my bearings it was…interesting. It’s very short, but not exactly a quick read; it requires a lot of thought and attention.
I expected this to read more like a typical memoir, but Nelson actually dives heavily into feminism and gender theory. I found myself wanting the philosophical studies and musings to be a little more personal. The academic portions of the narrative made me feel distanced from her (at first). Shannon at River City Reading said this book reads “like a collection of swirling thoughts” much like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which would explain my slightly detached feelings [my review].
However, there were obviously many things that struck some sort of chord with me. Check out all the sticky notes!
And when I went back and flipped through these flagged passages a week and a half later, it was like getting punched in the gut. Aha! There’s that emotional connection I was looking for! As I reflect back on the reading experience, I’m thankful for the distance I mentioned above, because the many layers of The Argonauts had the potential to be too overwhelming to take in all at once.
A few passages that struck me the most:
“How to explain…that for some, ‘transitioning’ may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others…it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?”
“We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”
“I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger.
Don’t you get it yet? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.“
So, The Argonauts ended up a strange experience for me. I was somewhat “meh” about it until I gave myself space. After turning it over in my mind for a while, it all came together, and I realized just how powerful this little book is.