The unchecked reign of three ideas — children as the future, families as the building block of society, and parenthood as the ultimate vocation — is breeding broad discontent. This spring, browsing the new-book table, we can see these topics discussed in Kate Bolick’s “Spinster” and Meghan Daum’s anthology “Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed,” in which 16 contributors explain their deliberately child-free lifestyles.
If these are necessary correctives, they’re also new variations on a critique that has a longer history in LGBT communities. As gay marriage has ceased to be an oxymoron, some sexual outsiders have intensified their warnings against assimilation. How to preserve a critique of normalcy when deviants start looking normal too?
In “The Argonauts,” poet, critic and essayist Maggie Nelson addresses and dismantles this question from a deeply personal angle, weaving a loose yet intricate tapestry of memoir, art criticism and gentle polemic. In the memoiristic strands, Nelson tells, in no particular order, of getting sober, falling in love and getting married, supporting her partner’s morphing gender expression, becoming a stepmother, getting pregnant, giving birth and parenting a newborn. Interleaved among these, we find reflections on contemporary art, engagements with theorists — such as Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick — and subtle polemics that are generally hidden in plain sight, peeking out from parentheses or cast as a crescendo of rhetorical questions.
Yet this is neither a memoir with theoretical decor nor a theory manifesto with a personal frame. The stories lay the ground for conceptual explorations, which in turn set the stage for art criticism, which give rise to further personal stories, and so on, circling away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.
About a dozen pages into “The Argonauts,” for instance, Nelson writes of a friend who comes over for coffee and spies a mug Nelson’s mother has sent her. On the ceramic is printed a holiday-season photo of Nelson, seven months pregnant in a leopard-print dress; her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, who doesn’t identify with a fixed gender but often passes as a man until the telltale credit card or driver’s license is brought forth; and Dodge’s young son. The friend calls the mug “heteronormative,” presumably with at least a touch of derision.
But what’s really wrong with this picture? Nelson and Dodge’s relationship may look to strangers more conventional than it is. Still, most LGBT communities embrace such genderqueer couples that can appear straight to the casual observer. So what makes this mug so suspect, Nelson wonders. Their holiday finery? Nelson’s mother’s acceptance? Or (and here she homes in with one of her not-so-innocent questions), “What about my pregnancy — is that inherently heteronormative?” At this moment, and throughout “The Argonauts,” she’s really asking: How does anyone decide what’s normal and what’s radical? What kinds of experience do we close ourselves off to when we think we already know?
These questions are, of course, particularly urgent for Nelson as she explores life as a pair and a parent. Marrying and babymaking often go under the banner of “growing up,” with the implication that those who opt out are immature. Nelson, less willing to stack the deck in her own favor, opts for “aging” — something that nobody can get out of but that everybody can do their own way.
Whatever it’s called, her community acts ambivalent about it. She and Dodge get turned away from a trapeze-burlesque show one night because, the bouncer explains with no trace of irony, these new parents with their sling-sleeping infant will prevent the other audience members from having “an adult night out.” On another occasion, Nelson relishes watching a friend’s high-art porno, but she’s put off by the dedication at the end: “To the queerest of the queer.” The idea of ranking people as more and less queer, Nelson implies, sets up hierarchies at odds with the most liberatory version of queer culture. "[I]t’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable,” she writes 10 pages later, “along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.”
“The Argonauts” shows us the value of lives, and books, that refuse to be “all one thing.” Although Nelson’s discussions are grounded in real life, they’re amply fed by — though never roped off inside — abstract thought. She points out how misogynistic it is to equate the maternal with the humdrum, but rather than simply flashing the red card of sexism she drives the point home through narrative: With a brilliant, unblinking eye for abjection, she describes her own pregnancy and childbirth experiences as drastic physical rearrangement entailing bouts of vast pain and even an intimate encounter with death.
The book is all detached paragraphs, no indentations and no visible chapter breaks. Impressively for a work that was largely composed in sections, “The Argonauts” is a keenly conceived whole. It’s a book about using the writings of smart, even difficult writers to help us find clarity and precision in our intimate lives, and it’s a book about the no less intimate pleasures of the life of the mind.
“I am interested,” Nelson writes, “in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.” It is worth a great deal. “The Argonauts” is a magnificent achievement of thought, care and art.
Marcus is the author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.”
Graywolf: 160 pp., $23