Reading Maggie Nelson is like watching a high-wire act. Her books are inspiring, if sometimes a little stunt-y, as if she were addicted to being a literary daredevil.
Still, because of her dazzling sentences, I will read whatever the daredevil writes. She cozies up to ideas unlike any other American writer — in a homely, visceral way, as if she packed lunch each day with theory and sandwiches.
Nelson is the author of eight books that range across categories. Two of my favorites are a romantic prose-poem about the color blue and a critical work about cruelty in art. There is also a study of female American artists and an existentialist true-crime volume about her aunt who was murdered.
“The Argonauts” is a short memoir whose subject is mostly the resilience of families of all kinds at a moment when our culture is blowing up the meaning of that word (yet again).
The plot, as much as there is one, follows Nelson as she starts a family with Harry Dodge, the female to male transgender person and performance artist she falls in love with and marries.
“The Argonauts’’ moves forward in short paragraphs, like a prose poem, through the birth of Nelson’s child. While this is happening, Nelson looks back — quoting her favorites from 20th- and 21st-century literature and theory to make sense of her present. Or to argue with them. But some of the most exhilarating moments bring you straight into her rapidly shifting personal life.
In one particularly striking moment Nelson describes being pregnant as Dodge is getting testosterone shots and is on a trip to Florida so he can get surgery. “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformation beside each other, bearing loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”
So, in a way, “The Argonauts’’ is a book about how love changes the way we name things. It is the first book I have read that explains to me as a reader and a human being what it is like to fall in love with someone driven to transform their own gender. Turns out, it’s like falling in love with anyone — surprising and sometimes scary
Nelson’s account of her falling is so natural and heartbreaking that I forgive the occasionally whiff of the seminar room. Even more so because a number of her scenes set in seminar rooms provide different denouements than what those words conjure.
Early on in “The Argonauts,” for example, one star female academic — Rosalind Krauss — attacks another — Jane Gallop — for new work: an AESTHETIC EXPLICATION OF a series of slides of herself at home with her husband and baby. For Nelson, Krauss’s take-down forces her to side with Gallop and then figure out why. Nelson FINDS THAT SHE has to stand against anyone who demonizes mothers (SIMPLY, SHE SUSPECTS, JUST FOR BEING MOTHERS), which Krauss seems eager to do. Not with the harsh, annihilating intelligence she admires but with the soft sentimental maternal one, which produces work she doesn’t like all that much.
Throughout the book Nelson shows how being forced to take sides in unexpected ways makes something new. Sometimes that thing is language itself. What do we call these new genders, new states of being? As she questions the limits of language Nelson’s books raises more questions: Is language enough to describe who we are?
I like Nelson when she is poking at some common wisdom, like the bromide that allows women to believe that they can have it all. “I cannot hold my baby at the same time I write.” Though Nelson doesn’t let herself off the hook; even she can’t elude her own critical gaze: She is outraged about heterosexual people comparing their suffering to that of their transgender near and dear ones until Dodge points out that only a few years ago, she did that too.
I like it less when Nelson dangles phrases at the reader that belong in graduate school’s most irredeemable corridors. “Sodomitical maternity” — a phrase borrowed from a scholar — is one I do not think needs to be in print so often in a short book, no matter how it inspired her.
Ultimately what Nelson is after is to tell the truth about identity, both the difficulty of looking for it and the difficulty of keeping it close to your heart once you’ve found it: “[L]isten to what they tell you, and . . . try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.”
Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting’.” She can be reached at rachelshteir@ gmail.com