Why You Should Read This: ‘The Argonauts’

Maggie Nelson pens a “magnificent anti-memoir of the brain and of the heart.”

the argonauts, maggie nelson
Graywolf Press

How to describe Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? To a very real extent, it is a love story, if an unconventional one. This is clear from the opening paragraph, which describes an early sexual encounter with the author’s partner, Harry Dodge. “You had Molloy by your bedside,” Nelson recalls, referring to Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel, “and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.”

There you have it: a magnificent anti-memoir of the brain and of the heart, in which intellect and lust and love—the mind-body problem—become blurred and interwoven in the most vivid ways. What I mean is that The Argonauts disrupts not only our preconceptions but also Nelson’s, the bromides and easy binaries by which identity and commitment are so often defined. In place of those, the book seeks a complexity that is as open, as indefinable, as it is intellectually and emotionally raw.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

At the center of it all, of course, is Nelson, whose work is uncommonly fluid and acute. She rejects—or, better yet, interrogates—convention, not out of a desire to be contrarian but rather to come to terms with what she doesn’t know. “My writing,” she confesses, “is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.”

This requires not only acknowledging but actively embracing contradictions, beginning with sexuality. “Soon after we got together,” Nelson writes, “we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who’d known Harry for some time turned to me and said, ‘So, have you been with other women, before Harry?’ ” The tone is observational but also questioning. Dodge, after all, is fluidly gendered. He and Nelson are raising two sons. The potential paradoxes here become explicit when a friend uses a mug featuring a portrait of Nelson’s family, “all dressed up to go to the Nutcracker at Christmastime,” only to blurt out: “I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.”

And yet, for Nelson, this is the point precisely, not to appear heteronormative or its inverse, but to exist in the space between. “Perhaps,” she suggests, “it’s the word radical that needs rethinking. But what could we angle ourselves toward instead, or in addition? Openness? Is that good enough, strong enough?” The Argonauts seeks to enact such an inquiry, without expectation about how this may turn out. It is conditional in the most fulfilling sense, beginning with the dynamic between the author and her material—in other words, the substance of her life. •

Graywolf Press


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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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