Saturday, December 5, 2015

Staff Pick: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Like a good librarian, I waited a long time for The Argonauts to arrive on the hold shelf with my name on it. I took it home after work, and since it was such a slim volume, I pushed it to the top of my to-read list and cracked it open right away. Thirty pages in, I went straight to Amazon and bought my own copy.

Maggie Nelson’s work in “autotheory”–part memoir, part love letter, part queer theory—begs to be re-read, marked up, dog-eared and generally engaged with over and over again. Her lyrical prose is so densely packed that each sentence must be intensely parsed for meaning. Nelson’s early work in poetry is evident; she layers her symbols and declines to waste words. Coming in at 150 pages, The Argonauts is a quick read but not an easy one.

If anything, I love this book more knowing many would despise it. It asks much of its reader, both in terms of engagement and reading comprehension. It wears its politics on its sleeve; they are personal, and they are liberal. Nelson structures the book as a kind of love letter to her partner Harry Dodge, a trans man. Her exploration of queer families ultimately starts with herself, admitting early on that even weeks into their relationship, she had not yet screwed up the courage to ask Harry’s preferred pronouns. Identity politics can be a messy subject from any vantage point, and Nelson doesn’t edit around chaos or ugliness. She exposes the best and worst of herself in a fumbling but successful attempt to find something beautiful, to know herself, to know Harry. If life is beautiful, then art emerges from the viscera.

If you are unfamiliar with Maggie Nelson’s oeuvre but would like to see more of it, give her personal history of the color blue, Bluets, a try. If you’d like to read more books that showcase personal exploration of political issues, I heartily recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which dissects the racial underpinnings of the American Dream in a heartrending letter from a black father to his teenage son. Between The World and Me was a Staff Pick on The Reader back in October; you can read Zo's review of it here.

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