The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts by Maggie NelsonThe Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Published by Macmillan on May 5, 2015
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Gender Studies, LGBT, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 160
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!

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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.

  • This sound so interesting, though I’m not quite sure it’s for me. I liked Dept. of Speculation, but it’s very hard for an author to pull off the “swirling thought”-type of writing. Plus, do I want to feel “punched in the gut”? I’ll have to think about it! Great review.

    • I agree about the “swirling thought” style. I don’t think most readers will have that gut-punch feeling about this; it’ll just be fascinating, probably. 😉

  • I love the passages you’ve shared here, Monika! I have a friend whose husband is in the process of transitioning and I find it fascinating; I love this concept of either leaving one gender entirely behind or not and how he says, “I’m not on my way anywhere.” It sounds like an interesting writing style, as well; not sure I’ll read it right away, but I’d love to, at some point. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Monika!

  • I find all this pretty fascinating…maybe I need to read this one. The first quote you shared reminded me of the moment when Diane Sawyer asked Bruce Jenner about his sexuality. If you haven’t seen his interview, when he responded that he’s attracted to women, Diane asked “are you a lesbian?” You could see him bristle at this…and he responded that he hasn’t worked through all that yet and asked to be called “asexual” for now. I think that speaks to the feeling behind your first quote…things aren’t black and white and may never be…or it could just take some time to iron things out.

    • Oh gosh, I cringed when she asked that. And you know, it’s not something that everyone feels the need to work out at all, either. Jenner handled her questions with so much grace.

      • I know…I did too (shudder). I’ve always liked him on KUWTK (yep, I watch that trash) and that interview just made my heart go out to him..that he’d been in such inner turmoil for so long, especially in the public eye. And, I agree that he just handled things beautifully.

  • I really like that this…dialogue…is starting to…oh, I don’t know, come out? I appreciate that it’s not all black and white, like it seemed to be just a few years ago. There is room for everyone in this great big world and, I hope, someday it will be a world where every one has the chance to work it out for themselves so that they can feel comfortable in their own skin.

    • What’s terrible is, even when (maybe even especially when) trans/genderqueer people feel comfortable in their own skin, there are real worries about being a victim of a violent crime. I hope books like this bring more understanding so that they are viewed with more kindness and acceptance instead of hate. 🙁 You’re right, there’s room for everyone in this world! (Love that point)

  • This books sounds like something I must read. I love when books kind of evolve as you read them… and make you think long after finishing. That’s a sign the author did something right!

  • It definitely came together for me a little more after going back through it, too. I think this is one you could probably break down almost paragraph by paragraph, it’s just so dense. I know it won’t work for some people, but I kind of love a book I can keep coming back to.

    • YES. Dense is the perfect word, too. It’s surprising because, you just don’t pick up a memoir that is this slim and expect that!

  • I tried starting this one yesterday and it’s just not clicking at the moment, but I am looking forward to circling back around to it in the next few weeks. Now I’m going back to read the review of the book you mentioned to me on FB the other day that you liked even better!

    • It will start to get into other topics as the book moves on, so I think it’s worth sticking with it.
      I know you’ll love the other one!, though!

  • I read a review of this book that said “‘All happy families are the same,’ said a straight man,” which I thought was such a terrific teaser for the book. I’m excited to try it.

  • Ooh, this sounds fascinating. I love the passages your posted!