One of the things I miss most about college is the opportunity to be in a room with someone–to hear them speak–about a subject that they have studied so thoroughly, have so many ideas about, and, most importantly, feel passionately connected to. I certainly enjoyed participating (enthusiastically) in discussions, but there was such joy in allowing someone to just render me awash in their expertise. It’s a feeling that made me voracious for knowledge, made me want to read everything. In case you haven’t guessed by now, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is the book form of such an experience, a nonfiction text unlike literally any I have ever read.
The Argonauts is, as described by Google Books, a work of “autotheory,” perhaps the best singular word to pinpoint this genre-defying text. Nelson moves through memoir and critical theory with effortless fluidity to explore some big, fascinating questions. What does it mean to “be” (or not be) a gender? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be a queer family? Where are the lines between “normative” and “radical”? Can we escape such definitions, or, are we ever in such definitions? What does it mean to love? And, perhaps at the heart of the text, can words ever adequately help us move through these questions? To move away from the more abstract for a moment, this is a book about Nelson’s family: her relationship with her partner (who fluidly moves among genders within the text) and their children. Nelson interrogates the experience of putting their family together, detailing moments from falling in love (and exploring her sexuality) with her partner, to becoming the stepmother to her partner’s first child, to her own pregnancy and motherhood. Through it all, Nelson calls upon the scholars and writers that have helped her think about her life and these questions, creating a text that is difficult to categorize ABOUT the difficulty of categories. (If that sentence doesn’t tickle your nerd fancy, I don’t know what will.) As Nelson writes in the first few paragraphs of the book, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained–inexpressibly!–in the expressed. […] Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.”
Like most successful memoirists, Nelson gazes unflinchingly into the inner life, examining her own sexuality, her feelings on motherhood, and her relationship to her partner. Nelson explores her emotions with depth and clarity, and the results are often surprisingly intimate. The thing that makes this book so unique, though, is the way Nelson buoys her emotional realities with scholarship and criticism. These elements blend together so fluidly, making the book one of the most honest portrayals of a mind at work I’ve ever seen on the page. Memories, experiences, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum from the things we’ve read and the external ideas we’re thinking about. Nelson perfectly captures this internal process: not so much a dialogue as a constant simmer, the words rolling and bubbling up. The text engages your mind in the same way; the experience was a complete pleasure. Nelson also plays with boundaries in the way she engages with the reader. She fluidly switches between first, second, and third person: sometimes she’s writing about her experiences from her point of view, sometimes she’s relaying scholarship to a more general audience, and sometimes she is writing directly to her partner. This only adds to the book’s feeling of a genuine thinking process, rather than a lecture or treatise: just as abstractions and concepts don’t exist in a vacuum separate from emotions, the act of thought isn’t usually directed towards one imagined recipient.
As someone who has always been interested in the blurring of boundaries, I am so glad to have read this book. Genre, gender, and sexuality all have their boundaries teased and tested, and the result is a provocative and thrilling work.