The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson was originally published in 2015. It is a genre-shifting, brutally honest memoir about love, motherhood, loss, art, gender and its fluidity. I found The Argonauts an intimidating book to begin reading. I had heard a lot about it, despite not knowing much about Maggie Nelson or her husband Harry Dodge.
At times, the memoir justifies the intimidating reputation it has garnered. The writing can be complex, discussing different theories of parenthood, gender and many other topics in a language which had me re-reading passages many, many times. Too often I find myself reading through a book without really considering what I am reading or what it really means, simply rushing to the end so that I can move on to the next book. With The Argonauts this is never an option. It is a book that grabs your attention and forces you to take it in, in its entirety and really think about what Maggie Nelson is presenting you with.
To be challenged in this way is refreshing and is an experience which reminds me why reading is such a powerful and important facet of our lives. It can open our minds to new experiences and ways of thinking which otherwise would be closed off to us. In the times we currently live in, this feels more important than ever as people seem to be becoming increasingly entrenched in their beliefs and politics. For this reason especially, I adored the book. It was a transformative experience that broadened my perspective on a multitude of different subjects.
It is not a perfect book, however. At times, I find that Maggie Nelson oversteps the mark from intellect in to pretentiousness. Some of the writing feels deliberately obtuse and overly complex. It occasionally seemed like Nelson was revelling in her own intellect and this gave some passages an aloofness I found irritating. These passages were few and far between, though. The passing irritation never lasting long enough to take away from the brilliance of the ideas being presented.
There is so much to admire about this book. The fearless, ruthless honesty is magnificent. Nelson discusses the experience of pregnancy, sex and relationship fearlessly. Gender plays a crucial role throughout the book. When Nelson first meets husband, Harry Dodge, she struggles with the correct pronoun to use, a friend eventually googling the artist to try and help her out. This is just one example of the complete candour the memoir is written in; no shame, no trying to sugar-coat subjects to make herself seem better.
No passage better typifies this than the stunning climax of the memoir. As Maggie struggles through labour, in agony with no end in sight, this is juxtaposed by Harry’s monologue, remembering his mother’s death and the poignant moments that came before it. One life beginning and another ending. The writing in this passage is heartbreakingly memorable. Once again, the raw, sheer honesty in Nelson’s lyricism hits home in a way few authors could ever achieve. It is a wonderful, transformative passage.
This is a book I believe everybody should read. Yes, it is challenging. It will push you and force you to take your time and maybe even do some research, but the payoff is worth it. Maggie Nelson is a rare talent and to not read this memoir is to deprive yourself of a unique reading experience. Don’t be put off by intellectualism of the writing, it all boils down to a story of love and that is something we can all relate to.