Book Reviews

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, Graywolf Press, 2015

Writing this review on a plane headed to a conference on queering sexuality, with newly shorn pink hair, I note to myself that I’m hitting a lot of stereotypes. I’m a philosopher, a professor of women studies, a feminist researcher, a parent who identifies as bisexual, and it’s with all these hats on that I’m reading and reviewing Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts.

I’m starting this way because it seems odd to review The Argonauts without any personal detail, though the inclusion of personal information isn’t something I get to do much as an academic philosopher. But The Argonauts is such a personal and philosophical book that it calls for that kind of response from those who read it. I won’t tell you my love stories or tales of my relationship with my pregnant body but I sort of want to. Maybe later I’ll write about that. The Argonauts is a one-person call for combining theory and memoir, and Maggie Nelson does it so very beautifully. I found myself marking passages, messaging friends with quotations from the book, and most of all, reading chunks aloud to people.

If you’d described this book to me I would have sworn I’d hate it. I love literature and I love philosophy but I love them separately. Together seems pretentious, I would have said. Yet, The Argonauts is anything but. It’s a philosophical memoir with lots of ideas but zero footnotes. Instead the names of authors discussed are mentioned in the margins. Readers are left to do their own work though frankly for most of the readers, I suspect they’ll be familiar. Which names? Wittgenstein, and Judith Butler, and Sarah Ahmed. Also, Jacques Lacan, Eileen Myles, and Lucille Clifton. I did wonder how accessible The Argonauts would be for readers outside academia. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe we are the intended audience, those of us who lead these lives, read these books, and create families in an intentional way.

Backing up a bit, The Argonauts is the story of the author, Maggie Nelson, and her love, Harry. It’s the story of two people falling in love and making a family. The Argonauts begins with a declaration of love and progresses through love, marriage, and parenthood in the usual order of things. But other than the order there is nothing usual about this book. This is a queer love story, about queer families, and queer parenthood. The declaration of love happens right at the start. We’re thrown right in to the lives of a couple, newly in love. Nelson writes:

During our first forays out as a couple, I blushed a lot, felt dizzy with my luck, unable to contain the nearly exploding fact that I’ve so obviously gotten everything I’d ever wanted, everything there was to get. Handsome, brilliant, quick witted, articulate, forceful, you. We spent hours and hours on the red couch, giggling. The happiness police are going to come and arrest us if we go on this way. Arrest us for our luck. (16)

The book’s title comes from Roland Barthes who describes the subject who utters “I love you” as being “like the Argonaut renewing his ship during his voyage without changing its name.” The phrase “I love you” must be renewed by each use. We meet our heroine, as she falls in love, after a period of singlehood and new sobriety, with Harry. Maggie and Harry are moving in together and making plans and deeply in love, but the author still isn’t sure what pronoun to use for her love. Luckily she likes saying “Harry” a lot.

The Argonauts is a love story but more than that it’s a story of queer family making. It’s also a story of physical transformations. During the course of the book both Maggie and Harry’s bodies change. Maggie gets pregnant using IVF and Harry has top surgery and starts taking testosterone. You might be tempted to think of this as Maggie becoming more “feminine” while Harry becomes less but that’s not the way it felt for Nelson. She talks about dinner out at a restaurant where she was recognized as pregnant and Harry passed as a guy and the waiter talked excitedly about his family to them. That’s the outside but Maggie writes, “On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging” (83). The writing about motherhood is the most beautiful and unsentimental I’ve read. I also loved the passages on combining parenting small children with an academic career and writing. There are words of wisdom here too about step parenting. I loved the musing about queerness and radical politics and about the meaning of “queer.” The book also engages with the meaning of gender. Of course.

Nelson writes, “A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all cats are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless” (15).

I confess that I have been carrying this book around and shoving it into friends’ hands saying, you have to read this. Even friends who don’t normally read books are being subject to my evangelism about this one. But it’s not perfect, of course, it’s not.

There are some details missing from the narrative and I wanted to know more. The baby nearly dies of a horrible illness but very little is said. I take it that’s because there’s nothing philosophically interesting about the near death of an infant. Or it’s just too awful to talk about. It’s a terrifying near tragedy. It’s not that ideas rather than narrative drive the book. Rather the bits of the narrative plot that get more attention are those with philosophical significance. What about the scary stalker? How did top surgery work out for Harry? Again I want to know how it all turns out. Also, not all the themes in the story are connected to the narrative. Sex work for example. Religion, death, and dogs make appearances too. You need to be patient with messy when you’re reading this book. Bodies are messy, love is messy, gender is messy, and so too are families and sex.

For a book about love and babies and family, there’s less sex than you might expect, though it starts well: “…the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a pile of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer” (1). The author writes of a weekend away with Harry. “Just don’t kill me, I said as you took off your leather belt, smiling” (6). Why the move away from that topic and instead childbirth and breastfeeding? Oh, right. Nevermind. There’s a great line about sex in the time of small children and big careers. We’re told, “We have a right to our kink and our fatigue both.” (110) Yes, yes you do.

I’m thinking of designing a graduate course around this book where we read it and selections from the authors mentioned along the way. Certainly, even if I’m not that ambitious, I’ll include it on the reading list for my course on alternative family values. That’s an exciting thought on a hot summer day. And you? You should read this book.

Samantha Brennan
Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research
Rotman Institute of Philosophy
Western University
London, ON, Canada