Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 24, 2016

Maggie Nelson, _The Argonauts_

A LOOSELY ASSOCIATIVE flock of micro-essays, this book has as its center of gravity Nelson's having a baby with her partner Harry Dodge, the genderqueer artist. Since Dodge is chromosomally female, and the conception occurred in some technology-assisted, non-levitical way, the mere existence of their family would strike quite a few of my fellow citizens (even some people on my street, I suspect) as the Abomination of Desolation and a sure sign that the end times were nigh.

At the same time, were you to see Maggie, Harry, Iggy, and Iggy's seven-years-senior half brother (not named in the text, unless I just missed it) at your local sandwich shop, they would look just like any other breeder clan out there. As a friend of Nelson's puts it, seeing their family photo on a coffee mug,  "I've never seen anything so heteronormative in my life."

(What do you suppose the tone of that utterance was, by the way?  The reviewer of the book in n+1 sounds confident that it was offered amicably, but I wonder.)

Hence my guess at the meaning of the title: the ship Argo, from Greek mythology, gradually had all its component parts replaced over the course of a voyage--was it still the Argo once nothing of the original Argo remained? Is the grand old patriarchal institution of marriage+kids still patriarchal when its component parts are replaced? Are Maggie and Harry reproducing a repressive institution or transforming it in an emancipatory way? "Afterward we debated: assimilation vs. revolution"--this debate actually occurs while they are watching X-Men: First Class while Harry is recovering from his top surgery, but the question seems germane to their domestic situation as well.

Things are still fairly edgy, even with the family-photo coffee mug around; the book opens with Nelson deeply relishing a session of anal sex (a topic that will come up a few times in the book).  Nelson obviously means to keep faith with her transgressive commitments as a theorist/artist, but she's willing to own up that she is really into her marriage and really into her kid. So there we are.

It's good book: brisk, provocative, sometimes provoking, moving. Nelson is one of a growing crowd of really interesting young (-ish, at least, i.e., younger than I) women prose writers--Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Karen Hays--but the book hers most often called to mind for me was Greenberg & Zucker's Home/Birth. Mainly because of the subject of childbirth, I suppose, but also something in the non-linear freedom of the structure, the poetic sensibility of both books, and also the willingness to write from an angle oblique to that of the American mainstream about the oldest, most elemental of human events.

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