The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

the-argonautsThe Argonauts is hard to categorize. Part memoir, part literary criticism, part cultural critique—it is many things at once. Nelson combines all of these different ways of thinking and writing combine in a profound, moving, challenging work that is both deeply academic and deeply personal.

On one surface, it’s a memoir about meeting and falling in love with her partner, their decision to have a child, Nelson’s pregnancy, and the birth and first year of her son’s life. On another surface, it’s a gorgeous mediation on queer family making and queer and trans relationships in general. On another surface, it’s a literary reaction to the many writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists who have influenced Nelson throughout her life. On another surface, it’s a queer feminist critique of traditional gender roles. On another surface, it’s an exploration of the nature of identity.

It was a hard book to read and stretched my brain in all the best ways. I read it slowly and carefully; even so, there were moments where the meaning eluded me, and passages that required a context I didn’t have to fully appreciate. This isn’t a critique, but praise: this is a book that’s worth the challenge, and one I’ll come back to again and again, always squeezing a bit more from its pages.

What came across, for me, as the central thesis of the book is the idea of becoming. Nelson argues eloquently that the human condition is one of constant, ever-changing, evolving becoming, that we are always in motion, and that identity is not static, despite the fact that we insist on building binaries and punishing those who dare to live outside of them.

Over and over, in many different contexts, she explores this idea of becoming. She writes about her own identities and the identities of her partner, and they ways in which, for both of them, these identities are constantly shifting. Being trans, being queer, being a mother, a parent, a partner—these identities, like all identities—can be understood as states of becoming. They are not static, stationary, final, but dynamic, fluid, malleable.

Much of the book concerns outward shifts in identity, and the disconnect between how those shifts feel to the person living them, and how they are perceived and defined by the world. When writing about the vastness of trans identity, Nelson asks, “how to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is ok—desirable, even—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?”

Throughout the scope of the book, Nelson and her partner, Harry, meet and fall in love. The two of them become partners. Nelson gets pregnant. Harry transitions. They become parents. She examines and catalogues these shifts with beauty and grace.

About the experience of being pregnant while her partner undergoes top surgery, she writes: “On the surface it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and 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 transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”

About finding out the sex of her child, she writes: “As my body made the male body, I felt the difference between male and female body melt even further away. I was making a body with a difference, but a girl body would have been a different body, too. The principal difference was that the body I made would eventually slide out of me and be its own body.”

Nelson deftly dispatches with the idea that humans come in one of two genders, or that particular experiences can only be patched with particular identities. “Indeed,” she writes “one of the gifts of genderqueer family making—and animal loving—is the revelation of care-taking as detachable from—and attachable to— any gender, any sentient being.”

Using her own experiences falling in love and building a family, and drawing on the words and work of other artists, writers, and thinkers, Nelson illustrates the joy and beauty of living outside prescriptive mainstream narratives of love, family, and parenthood. She also lays bare how harmful and dangerous those narrative can be. “It’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.”

To be human is to hold a shifting identity. But accepting that truth is difficult for so many of us, perhaps because we live in a culture obsessed with the idea of arrival—that illusive state where we will finally become who we were meant to be. Nelson argues that, beyond our entry into this world and our exit out of it, there is no absolute arrival. If we stop thinking about identity as something with an endpoint, it’s much easier celebrate the beautiful messiness of the journey.

“The presumptuousness of it all,” Nelson writes. “On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary, need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live.”

The Argonauts is a smart and powerful exploration of that great soup of being where we actually live, in all our contradictory, imperfect, and glorious becoming.

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