Book review: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson, Part One

Anna loaned me a copy of The Argonauts earlier this year because she said she really wanted to talk to someone about it, and when I got it and started reading, I could see why. No matter how you feel about this book, and there are a whole lots of ways to feel about it, sometimes all at the same time, you are likely going to want to talk to someone about it. It’s queer theory, it’s autobiography, it’s something slippery and hard to explain. I can’t honestly tell you if I liked it or not, but I can say that it was a challenging and provoking book at times that stimulated some thought for me, especially around queerness and marriage — in part because it’s a subject I’ve talked about a lot with people this year and I like getting new perspectives on it.

So and thus. This book is ostensibly about Nelson’s relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist who identifies as genderfluid, exploring the complexities of building a family together (including raising a child from a prior relationship and having one of their own), and poking at the margins of family, marriage,  homonormativity, and other things. It’s also, as hinted at just now, a firm piece of queer theory examining the state of queerness in society and how we relate to each other and to the larger world, because some very interesting things are happening as certain forms of queerness start to become homogenised and mainstreamed, creating complicated tensions.

I’ve got a lot of things to say about this book, so I’m breaking this review into two chunks. This week is the part that’s less fun.

Some things I definitively did not like: The writing style. I’m sorry, this is a matter of purely personal taste and I absolutely respect those who did like it, but I found it precious, tedious, and twee. It’s pitched as a ‘genre-bending memoir,’ which it definitely is, but reading an entire book in staccato bursts that jumped wildly from subject to subject was extremely frustrating. I don’t need books to be perfectly linear, neatly following an evenly-drawn line, but this wasn’t really something that worked for me as a reader, even though I appreciated the experimentation with narrative structure and the attempt to confront normative rules for memoir and queer theory alike. Books that don’t do what they’re supposed to deserve a nod of the head, even if I don’t like the particular route they choose.

I was also made very uncomfortable by the decision to write about Dodge and their children. This is a consistent issue I have with memoir and commentary written by parents and partners of all genders, because it’s hard to determine when consent is actually obtained, and whether the people involved really have the capacity to fully consent. It’s something that maybe cuts close to the bone for me in particular because I have been made the subject of nonconsensual published writing and it makes me extremely angry and upset. My life is my own, my experiences are my own, and it is not for other people to tell them, particularly when they are deeply personal, humiliating, from parts of my past that I would rather forget. At times, The Argonauts reads as deeply objectifying and lascivious. It’s clear that Dodge read some if not all of the book at various stages and must have exerted some right of veto over the content, but again, there’s no way to gauge that, and it makes me uneasy. The children certainly didn’t have that choice, and even if they had, children don’t always have the autonomy and the life experiences to make informed choices about these things.

These were things that persistently haunted me as I read, because they were everpresent themes of the book. You don’t write a book about your relationship with someone without writing about that person intimately, and when that relationship includes children, you write about them as well. Nelson makes a passing acknowledgement of the tension over writing about children and what will happen when they read the texts they’re in later in life, so clearly thought about this, but she ultimately made the decision to go ahead and do it.

Which maybe for some people in adulthood is fine. They don’t object, they don’t really care, or they actively enjoy reading texts like this. But for others, that’s not the case, and once the genie has left the bottle, it cannot be crammed back in. Even with things like irritatingly sly and sideways approaches to storytelling that Nelson claims are to ‘preserve privacy,’ the move seems more calculated to preserver her own privacy, rather than that of the children.

These are pretty fundamental structural issues for me. One is very much a matter of personal taste. The other is a more complicated social issue that we need to be talking about more, especially in an era when people are talking about their children more and more openly on bigger and broader public platforms. ‘Mommy blogging’ (I hate the dismissive, sexist tone implied here but women who blog about their children self-identify that way in many cases) is huge and very profitable these days. Women write about extremely intimate details of their children’s lives. They post a lot of intimate photos of their children. They’re laying everything bare in a format that children will see for the rest of their lives — and so will friends, colleagues, and others who may use these things against them later in life. This, to my eyes, is a huge problem, because it takes consent away from a population that is already highly disempowered. Children are given few choices when it comes to their privacy, and parents are ostensibly supposed to look out for the welfare of their children.

I remain unconvinced that baring your children’s lives is okay, and that goes double when it’s clearly a profiteering move.

Stay tuned next week for part two…