Published in Paperback by Graywolf Press, 2016
Review by Bess Cooley
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a near perfect example of form and content fitting together, informing one another. This book of nonfiction questions and pushes against gender binaries and traditional gender roles, while also questioning and pushing against the nonfiction genre itself, rejecting the traditional role of writing.
Nelson’s prose has done this all along: her book Jane: A Murder mixes together various nonfiction styles, while Bluets doesn’t adhere to tradition and, at first glance, doesn’t look like nonfiction at all—more like prose poems or small meditations on the color blue. The Argonauts seems a mix of these too texts. In my attempt to place it into some combination of boxes, my list looked like this: Stream of consciousness, political/social statements about gender and sexuality, lyric essay, journalism (?), questioning/exploration, philosophy, account/personal essay, rant (since Nelson seems rightfully angry when writing, “As if all that’s left for us to do is sit back and watch while the gratuitously wealthy and greedy shred our economy and our climate and our planet, crowing all the while about how lucky the jealous roaches are to get the crumbs that fall from their banquet. Fuck them, I say.”).
All this to say that The Argonauts defies being put even into multiple boxes—it defies boxing at all. And that’s exactly what Nelson explores in writing about her partner taking the hormone T, about how she counts as a single mother because there’s no one in her family unit labeled father. Rather than trying to fashion a new nonfiction, there’s an argument that placing the book in any category doesn’t matter, doesn’t change anything about the value of the writing, just as foregoing one particular gender identity doesn’t forgo a person’s human-ness.
Primarily, this book concerns itself with change, especially with regard to bodies. Nelson spends a good portion of the book discussing her pregnancy, which happens at the same time as her partner is taking T. Though she mentions them, she’s not only talking about the wild hormones in her house, but the constant bodily changes happening around her, inside her, daily. Refreshingly, this tumult is the book’s constant tone. But Nelson doesn’t let herself off the hook: she admits to her concerns about her partner taking T, saying that they already “pass”; and Nelson allows herself to question her own immersion in her identity as female, so much so that when her son is born she is surprised her body can make a male body.
Though The Argonauts questions the domestic (“I didn’t have a domestic,” Nelson writes, “and I liked it that way”), the memoir suddenly and surprisingly violently enters a traditionally domestic sphere at its conclusion, when Nelson describes much of her childbirth. She doesn’t just enter “the domestic”—she forces it wide open. She rips it.
Mid-book, Nelson writes of a feminist theory class: “They were tired of dismantling identities, tired of hearing that the most resistance one could muster in a Foucauldian universe was to work the trap one is inevitably held in.” I’m still trying to decide if The Argonauts works the trap that it’s held in, or if it’s dismantling that trap. For my money, the best thing about Nelson’s prose is that it leaves me wondering if dismantling the trap is still working the trap. We’re each caught differently, but Nelson herself doesn’t seem so sure that that means there’s no way forward. She describes one conversation as “simply the outline of a becoming,” and, for me, this book is just that. It becomes, it changes, it outlines. It doesn’t flinch. But still it questions and interrogates. That’s exactly why I love it—this prose makes me feel that something has really begun.
160 pages, $15