Not many books that take love and motherhood as central themes would open with a line like this: “…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.” Author Maggie Nelson certainly knows how to grab a reader’s attention. Dense with ideas, lightning-flash shifts of tone and subject, and interwoven with a kind of brutal in-your-face poetry, The Argonauts is a genre-defying memoir, a long essay in short parts, and a philosophical exploration of the limitations of language and binary categorisations.
In so much as The Argonauts has a story, it revolves around the sexually charged relationship between the author and artist Harry Dodge, a self-described “two in one” who defies categorisation, neither “he” nor “she” – Nelson describes the early part of their relationship as “a quick study in pronoun avoidance”. Harry comes with a child and they have a second together, creating a family with inspiration from Nelson’s “many gendered-mothers of the heart”. None of this should scandalise anyone but Cory Bernardi; culturally, we might be approaching peak transgenderism.
The Argonauts has received knockout reviews globally. It is certainly in many ways a virtuosic, if to my mind, generally inoffensive and exhaustingly earnest work. But two things did shock me about it. One is a pervasive elitism as casual as it is judgemental, evidenced, for example, in the author’s unexamined disdain for the “middlebrow”, her patronising comments on another woman’s “endearing” but “bad” fashion sense, and her description of crowds in Florida as “loud and repulsive and a little scary” without any explanation other than that they consisted of “Europeans on cheap vacation packages” and “frat brothers and sorority sisters” thronging the fried fish joints.
The second is her uninflected, adulatory portrait of Harry, expressed in strings of hero-worshipping adjectives: “handsome, brilliant, quick-witted, articulate, forceful”. She shares with us moments such as that, on a holiday, when she says “Just don’t kill me” as he takes off his belt, “smiling”. Fine. Horses for courses. But I couldn’t help but wonder – would Nelson be such a darling of the literary world if she were, say, a heterosexual woman (or man) describing a similar dynamic? If not, what does that say about our binary tendencies? CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts ". Subscribe here.