Memoir Review: Lanie Tankard Takes a Close Look at The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

by Matilda Butler on June 9, 2015

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #111 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

What’s In a Name?

The Argonauts

by Maggie Nelson

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“What’s in a name? 
That which we call a rose
By any other name
would smell as sweet.”
—William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet

Photo by Harry Dodge

Photo by Harry Dodge

Maggie Nelson’s fascinating second memoir, The Argonauts, is a transgenre work of art. She’s an expert at weaving autobiography with social criticism, a method termed autotheory by Stacey Young in her 1997 book Changing the Wor(l)d: Discourse, Politics and the Feminist Movement (p. 61).

In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Nelson cited Paul Beatriz Preciado’s use of autotheory in Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacographic Era as an inspiration for how she framed her Argonauts project.

Young emphasized in Changing the Wor(l)d: “The ability to communicate certain realities can sometimes depend on the genre in which one writes,“ noting how “articulating marginalized perspectives is strategic.” The point is to “enable others to bring those perspectives to bear on their own lives” (pp. 64, 70).

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson gathers many perspectives as she introduces the reader to her family: artist Harry Dodge (her partner who is fluidly gendered), Dodge’s son Lenny (from an earlier marriage), and their son Iggy (to whom Nelson gave birth).

She explores gender: self-consciousness, self-worth, color, clothing, commodity, greetings, pronouns, and “ghost-sheet” visibility. She queries gender: What does it mean to be a woman? Or a man? What does it mean to be both—or to transition from one to the other?

The Argonauts appears in timely fashion, with a gay marriage case before the US Supreme Court, Ireland becoming the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote, and Caitlyn Jenner’s recent public confirmation as transgender. UCLA’s Williams Institute, which is studying the population, estimates there are 700,000 transgender people in the United States. Maggie Nelson’s memoir, therefore, is a brilliant source for much-needed understanding in this area, since her voice reaches both scholars and lay readers.

In another era, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s book Words and Women: New Language in New Times broke ground as an important guide for writing about women in a nonsexist manner when it was published in 1976 (paperback 1977; update 1991), based on their work in the earlier 1970s. Today, organizations like GLAAD have developed guidelines for how to write about transgender issues. GLAAD’s definitions can be useful for those unfamiliar with various LGBT terms when reading The Argonauts.

Memoir writers might study the excellent construction techniques Nelson employs in her memoir, for they are not only splendid but also seamless. A Poetry Foundation biography calls Nelson a “poet, scholar, and nonfiction writer,” and she certainly combines all three angles in The Argonauts. There are no chapters. Neither are there footnotes, enhancing a less cluttered consideration of ideas, but I do wish there had been a Reference List at the end.

Nelson packs a lot into a mere 160 pages. She knits with five strands, writing as if she’s talking to Dodge, to herself, to the reader, to famous philosophers, and to contemporary theorists.

“What I hide by my language my body utters,” Roland Barthes wrote in A Lover’s Discourse. Nelson, who draws heavily on Barthes, indicated his influence on her memoir’s title in a wide-ranging Guernica interview.

The tale of Jason and the Argonauts dates back to the Greek epic poem The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, who in turn drew on Homer’s telling in The Odyssey …which in turn likely drew on an even more ancient myth.

Nelson italicizes the words of philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and then talks back to them in roman type. Names of authors quoted appear in tiny gray type in the margins next to their italicized words. At times Nelson ruminates, while at others she disagrees with the ideas she’s presenting, critiquing them. Normativity is a recurring theme, as is naming. Her thoughts inspired me to explore these concepts more deeply, and I ran across a saying attributed to artist Pierre Bonnard: “The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing.” Thus did Nelson’s writing establish a connection between author and reader.

She discusses why she writes—what language means to her, the function of fiction, the value of spoken versus written words—and terms herself “a serial minimalist.” She considers the Hamlet aspects of her life.

Nelson’s voice is pure and clear and earnest. All these conversations appear as bursts in short paragraphs of several sentences each as she rummages around in her mind, flipping back and forth in both time and topic. She might jump from a man stalking her on campus to her cervix dilating in labor, from comments by a chauvinist playwright after her book talk to pumping milk out of her breast for her baby. Has anyone ever described the “postpartum belly” with such accuracy and allusion before? She writes with no holds barred about her domestic life, sexual practices, and former dependencies.

As she gradually portrays her romance with Dodge in poetic language—meeting, marrying, mothering—her heart becomes an open book. In an especially moving section, Nelson juxtaposes two scenes: the birthing of their son with the dying of Dodge’s mother from breast cancer. She writes the first account and uses Dodge’s notes for the second, interweaving the progressions in alternating paragraphs—one spirit entering the world as another leaves. I cried.

Maggie Nelson entrusts the reader with her very soul in this braided, shapeshifting, autotheoretical memoir. She probes “the inability to live in your skin” and, ultimately, what it means to be human.

Nelson’s first memoir, The Red Parts, centered on her aunt’s murder. She also blended memoir into her book Bluets.

The jacket design of The Argonauts, by Jeanne Lee, suggests the use of stencil graffiti as political protest, while the white/red letters against a black background echo reverse graffiti or “dust tagging” á la Moose.

Maggie Nelson’s expressively honest heart-to-heart with the reader—with asides to philosophers and theorists, mingled with a billet doux to her partner—is, quite simply, a tour de force. Kudos to Graywolf Press for publishing a masterpiece that sheds light on social change.

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Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press

Editor: Ethan Nosowsky

Jacket by Jeenee Lee Design

Book Design by Rachel Holscher at Bookmobile

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Lanie TankardLanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne Lombardo July 6, 2015 at

Very much enjoyed this excellent review. Was recently introduced to Nelson’s work by my 23-year-old daughter, and wondered where to start myself. Appreciated the short overview of autotheory here, the helpful links, the social context that makes her work so timely.

Lanie Tankard July 26, 2015 at

Jeanne, thanks for the kind words (which I’m reading belatedly after beating the Texas heat in Alaska for several weeks). I, too, am enjoying Maggie Nelson’s work as I explore it even more.

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