Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

The ArgonautsThe Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This theory-inflected memoir of “(queer) family making,” to quote the jacket copy, so assiduously defends itself that there is little point formally reviewing it. There is even a little parable early in the book that guides you in how to read it: in a graduate seminar Nelson once attended, the feminist theorist Jane Gallop gave a presentation focused on her personal life; then the art historian Rosalind Krauss berated Gallop for presenting something so naive and untheorized. Nelson’s moral is clear: we are not to treat Nelson the way Krauss treated Gallop, we are not to seek knowledge and mastery at the expense of real life’s many ambiguities and contradictions.

Nelson in her theoretical speculations indemnifies herself against critique. If you find her fragmentary or montage style not merely suggestive in its juxtapositions but also designed to evade difficult questions the minute they are raised, then you are a paranoiac seeking an unattainable (and implicitly anti-queer) wholeness and totality. If you find this book’s politics to be, under a thin screen of hip rhetoric, run-of-the-mill middle-class liberal (Nelson’s anxious defense of giving her white baby a Native American name is exemplary here), then you are at one with cruel totalitarian leftists like Žižek or phallic novelists like Franzen—these two are predictably trotted out for the same ritual scorn they get on social media, because it’s easier to deal with personalities and shibboleths than with arguments.

The word “queer” itself risks becoming an all-purpose alibi for every taste, preference, and decision, primarily by comparison with the strawman of an absolute normativity that no one in my experience has ever posited, not the most pious priest or suburban matron. As Melville’s Ishmael inquired, “Who ain’t a slave?” Nelson asks, “What ain’t queer?” and the trouble is the same with both questions. Everything, including mom and apple pie—Nelson’s main example is pregnancy and birth—is messy and ambiguous and grotesquely material when you look at it closely enough, but should this earn mom and apple pie the honorific of a radical politics? Nelson briefly admits to some of these difficulties, and even calls into question the whole concept of radicalism, but she brushes them aside as an understandable desire to “want things both ways,” itself in its heterogeneity presumably a queer desire.

I didn’t dislike everything in The Argonauts—the passages on the materiality of maternity are unforgettable, particularly the painful account of childbirth. I often winced in sympathy with Nelson’s vivid descriptions, despite my own congenital lack of uterus and cervix. These passages would have been just as good were they not provided as the ballast to an unseaworthy political argument. The book’s governing and eponymous metaphor, borrowed from Barthes, is Jason’s mythological ship the Argo: it retains its name even as all its parts are replaced, just as our relationships alter but our love remains. It is an enchanting analogy to the complexity of self-definition and family life, but all the same, I want to ask: is there not a risk of defrauding your readers by selling them mislabelled goods?


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