The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I wanted to read this book after listening to The Literary Friction Podcast on intimacy (their first one). If you haven’t listened to them, I thoroughly recommend it! This is one of the books that they mention and recommend often.

I must say that I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t perhaps what I started reading. Here was another non-fiction book dealing with gender, motherhood, how to place oneself in the world, but in this book there is a sense of being as an endless becoming. 

This is a very compelling idea dressed in theorists, explored through the work of artists and Maggie Nelson’s own life, in a way that intimidates but also impresses in all the right ways. Thoughts and words feel as if they are indeed creating impressions upon the physicality of my thinking. It is beautiful and poignant, personal but also wildly theoretical. 

Because of this, it probably isn’t for everyone. There is something to be said for the story that opens itself out for others to connect to. Not everyone can connect to psychological, linguistic, literary theory and fair enough. But there are many who will embrace the gentle eloquence of a work that attempts to look at what it means to be human and to connect to other humans in many different types of relationships; a book that also explores the limits of language, whether it can express more than the sum of its parts.

‘Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”’ From a passage on page five which she sends to her partner, Harry, from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

Key intimacies and experiences are put under Nelson’s microscope. Towards the end of the book, the birth of her son is juxtaposed with the death of her spouse’s mother and this isn’t a crude comparison but a clear sighted inspection of how much the two experiences share. Pain and beauty, boredom, incredulity, anger, sadness and joy, they are all there, they are all to be treasured. They are all part of the boat, the Argo, whose parts are endlessly replaced but nonetheless continue to be considered as one constant thing.

In the acknowledgements it becomes clearer than ever that the book is in many ways a meditation on love. She writes to Harry, ‘Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be-an infinite conversation, an endless becoming.’ 

I enjoy the honesty of her self-reflection and I enjoy jumping into her boat, questioning how much of my own life shares aspects of her own becoming. 

Reflecting on this review, this is probably another reason to check out Heidi James’ novel, The Sound Mirror, coming out in August. See my review of that here.

I’m reviewing Wild Swims by Dortha Nors next. 

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