We hope you’ve been enthralled by Maggie Nelson’s hybrid The Argonauts, the May California Book Club selection, and its fearless, unsentimental search for the language with which to tell her experience of love. Late in the book, you’ll encounter a passage that has haunted me since I first read it, years ago. Nelson writes,
Empirically speaking, we are made of star stuff. Why aren’t we talking more about that? Materials never leave this world. They just keep recycling, recombining. That’s what you kept telling me when we first met—that in a real, material sense, what is made from where.
Galactic chemical evolution, or the turning of “star stuff” into other things, including human bodies, is one of the strong metaphorical tensions of Nelson’s book. Recycling. Recombining. The prefix re comes from the Latin for again, and these words evoke the larger movement of Nelson’s thought process on the page, as she comes back to experiences again and again, looking for the right way to convey their intensity. In its form and in its substance, The Argonauts gathers the work of artistic and intellectual luminaries who have commented on the body and recombines their theories, giving them back to us, the readers, as something changed, something original and new.
But lest we get overconfident in our own assessment of the initial pronouncement “we are made of star stuff,” this searching passage is followed by Nelson’s immediate undercutting of “empirically speaking,” the solidity with which she began her thought. Certainty is replaced with a casual, tender admission: “I didn’t have a clue what you were talking about, but I could see you burned for it. I wanted to be near that burning.” Within these pages, Nelson’s desire to be close to her partner, Harry, close to desire, close to the star stuff, however it burns, pulls readers forward.
Perhaps, getting back to Nelson’s initial inquiry, we are not talking about star stuff, about the mysteriousness of our patchworked experiences, because most of us are not quite sure how to say what has recombined in our minds to make us. The experiences we’ve had and the contradictions built into them. Art that’s moved or shocked us. Books we’ve absorbed. Words we’ve shouted or whispered or cried, but also those we never have. Sometimes we recognize a persistent, ferocious brilliance because it refuses not to say.
Refusal to compromise her artistic expression is also the approach that fuels the filmmaker, artist, and writer Miranda July’s work. In the fall of 2020, she debuted her third feature film, Kajillionaire. Her second novel is forthcoming from Riverhead in 2023. We are thrilled to welcome her as our special guest in a conversation with Nelson and CBC host John Freeman on May 19.
Like Nelson’s, July’s work nudges the edges of existing perceptions and seeks the new. In Kajillionaire, for instance, the daughter of two grifters, played by Evan Rachel Wood, has been taught the art of the heist by her parents. Yet she finds herself questioning her upbringing when she develops intimacy with a friendly, more balanced woman, played by Gina Rodriguez. July’s vision over her body of work can readily be described as queer, but what strikes me most about it is that it dials into the tremendous light in California, the buoyant, spilled-over dreams and outsize desires that people sometimes possess when they grow up in a state with shrugging indifference to existing conventions.
A recombinant spirit lives in this place: “What is made from where.” California literature is at its brightest when animated by a spirit of not quite knowing one’s place, a fumbling toward intimacy by people who perceive themselves as shaped more by their idiosyncrasies than their essences, more in lateral than vertical relationship to one another. It is a fumbling that always feels new, even when driven by age-old desires. Queer history. Utopianism. Progressivism. Even technology. Hopeful efforts to reshape old, entrenched, hierarchical ways of relating to other people did not spark up in all this dry warmth accidentally.
You can feel the kinship of Nelson’s and July’s artistic work. Both reshape the material of contemporary life in California—the dust motes in a flood of light, the off-kilter colors, the shedding of fixed customs, the misfits with big intellects, the sliding glass doors of rapidly constructed housing—into art with its own distinctive pulse, art that, like stars, might outlast a single human body and might birth other new, bold visions.
If you haven’t read The Argonauts yet, there’s still time. Don’t miss being changed by this love story, this singular work of hybrid criticism from one of the most vital and rigorous California minds of our time.•
Join us on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with Freeman and July to discuss The Argonauts. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register for the conversation here.
WHY I WRITE
Nelson explains that she does not tell stories: “Stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain.” —Alta
WHY READ THE ARGONAUTS
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin recommends Nelson’s book as “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.” —Alta
IMPROVISATION WHILE TREKKING
THE PEARL PAVILION
SYMBOL OF STRENGTH
The legacy of more than 8,000 Black cowboys who rode in western cattle drives in the late 1860s is carried forward today in the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Gabriela Hasbun has been shooting beautiful photographs of the rodeo in the Bay Area since 2008. —Literary Hub
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