The Problem of Language

In this week’s newsletter, we introduce our May California Book Club selection and look at how Maggie Nelson’s hybrid work of criticism and memoir tackles the difficulty of marrying personal experience to language even in its opening pages.

maggie nelson
Dustin Snipes

I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak.” So wrote Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable, the third book in his dark, tragicomic Molloy trilogy, novels largely concerned with existence, death, and impermanence. Written between 1947 and 1950, the books are models of uncertainty and of trying, of feeling around for the words to adequately express experience, of understanding that language may never quite fit our thoughts and our sense of the world.

In penning the three books, Beckett seems to express ideas similar to those of the philosopher Wittgenstein, though it’s not clear whether Beckett was, in reality, influenced by Wittgenstein’s work. The philosopher, early in his career, advanced a picture theory of language. His theory was that reality is made up of facts that have the potential to be represented by language; language can be adequate to describe these facts, so long as it’s logical. While this theory was widely popular among certain philosophers, later in his career, Wittgenstein backtracked. As deep thinkers tend to do, he changed his mind. He came to believe that his earlier sense of language, the picture theory, was wrong; instead, he thought—in rough, rough terms—that words are contingent on context, and when we communicate, we play language games. Our games may involve conventionally accepted language, but the meanings of those words aren’t fixed.

Perhaps that all sounds cerebral. But Maggie Nelson’s hybrid, nonlinear memoir The Argonauts, our California Book Club selection for May, is a visceral experience. It’s language you can feel in your body as a reader. The critical memoir captures the evanescence of moments within our physical bodies over time, and the inadequacy of the language we use to try to capture those internal shifts and tell one another of our experiences, particularly those involving our sexual orientations and gender identities. The book is written as an address to Nelson’s beloved spouse, Harry Dodge, an artist who is nonbinary and uses he/him pronouns. It relates a story of transformations: those of their relationship, those of Nelson’s movement from being a stepchild to being a stepmother, and those wrought by the birth of their son Iggy.

From its attention-grabbing opening pages, we know that The Argonauts is a book that’s astonishingly honest about the difficulties of language as it applies to love and relationships, particularly Nelson’s love for Dodge. The book attempts to express the inexpressible, and it immediately signals that this is what the book will be doing. For one, there’s an allusion to Molloy within the first paragraph juxtaposed with an image of cocks used for sex: “You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall.” There’s the sonics of that sentence, the soft shhh, shhh of “shadowy” and “shower,” and then there are the k sounds, the plosives. There are the literal details of events, but those details also bear a symbolic load. The next section of the opening moves to contrast Nelson’s belief before her relationship with Dodge, that the inexpressible could always be found in what was expressed, with what she believed was expressible afterward.

The book’s nonlinear structure, Nelson’s sliding back and forth through time, reinforces the book’s acknowledgment that words do not quite get at life in an essential way. Rather, language is contingent on context. We play certain games with language, and it’s our understanding of these games that allows us to communicate within our communities—or not. But even the words we use to express ourselves are subject to the internal shifts of our minds and senses, those understandings we can’t quite settle into, because always, always, there’s another thought, another experience, rubbing up against what came before, slipping it out of place, transforming the picture.

Like the most profound writers, Nelson understands that language begets more language and that words may not meet our need to express. One of her genius talents is an ability to dramatize a core contradiction of human experience through the material of her own love story. We need to keep expressing to keep thinking, to keep struggling, to keep accounting for all of the frustrations, but also all of the ecstasies, found in the inexpressible. •

Join us on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss The Argonauts. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. We can’t wait to hear what you think.


maggie nelson, the argonauts
Graywolf Press


Read an excerpt from the opening pages of Nelson’s The Argonauts. —Alta

michael connelly, mitzi roberts


If you missed Thursday evening’s conversation about The Dark Hours with author Michael Connelly, host John Freeman, and special guest LAPD detective Mitzi Roberts, check out the recap. —Alta

saint sebastian's abyss, mark haber
Coffee House Press


Alta Journal’s books editor, David L. Ulin, interviews Mark Haber about his novel, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, which meditates on art and its critics. —Alta

lyndia kiesling, karen yamashita
Andria Lo; Chris Hardy


Registration is open for the 33rd annual Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, which will be held in person. Among the lineup of workshop leaders are West Coast writers Jean Chen Ho, Lydia Kiesling, Naomi Hirahara, and Faith Adiele. Prior CBC author Karen Tei Yamashita will be the keynote speaker. —Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference

ritual encounter


Alta Journal contributor and Pulitzer Prize winner Forrest Gander worked with artist Ashwini Bhat on the installation Ritual Encounters, which reconfigures the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center as a temple that celebrates Mount Tamalpais. —SF/Arts

brood, burning boy


For the first time in three years, the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes ceremony was live and in person in USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Winners included memoirist and poet Luis J. Rodriguez, author Paul Auster, poet Diane Seuss, and Rep. Adam Schiff. —Los Angeles Times

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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