All spring and summer a dear friend insisted that I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. She didn’t give me much by way of recommendation but that it was short, that it seriously changed her brain and that she wanted to talk about it. Four months later I bought a copy. A month later I finally opened it up. Two days later I had devoured every last word and started rereading.
Nelson is a poet, critic, nonfiction writer, and teacher at CalArts’ MFA writing program. The Argonauts is her latest book and follows works of poetry, art and cultural criticism, and autobiography. The front flap describes The Argonauts as a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, queer family, maternity, and the limits and possibilities of language. The narrative is anchored in Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. She writes about her relationship with Dodge, Dodge’s son, her own pregnancy, and the growth of their family.
The Argonauts is a memoir that asks whether words are “good enough” to express the complexity of life (see above: sexuality, gender, etc.). And honestly, her writing makes me feel like they are. Nelson seamlessly weaves colloquial banter (read: %&*#) and heady theory. She calls up Emerson, Sontag, Butler, Foucault, and many others in a way that makes those complex works wholly accessible and actually readable. Like lying in bed with a cup of coffee readable (as opposed to, say, pencil in hand, hunched over a desk readable).
The Argonauts is about love and identity and the limits and possibilities of language in the 21st century. Honestly, I fall short of having the words to fully articulate how and why I love this book. But I have pushed it onto others (like I’m pushing it onto you now, Reader) using the same recommendation my friend gave me: it’s short, it changed my brain, and I want to talk about it.