A House Party Full of Strangers: On Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’

By Ryan Joe

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts gets its title from the ship the Argo, which was replaced piece by piece over a long voyage – as described by Roland Barthes – until it was both the same ship and an entirely new one.

coverThis is not unlike how the 49ers, a few years removed from their Super Bowl appearance, gradually replaced key pieces like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown, Frank Gore, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Chris Borland, Jim Harbaugh, Vic Fangio, Ed Donatell, Mike Solari, and even Greg Roman. It’s the same team, yes, technically, though unlike the Argo which I presume was functionally the same, the new incarnation of the 49ers is shittier.

I admit, The Argonauts took some time for me to get into.

You know how sometimes at a house party full of strangers you manage to insinuate yourself into a conversation in which a person is talking about an experience you know nothing about, referencing individuals you’ve never heard of?

That was me reading the first third of The Argonauts. I tend to find phrases like “negative gynecology” and “comfortably cisgendered folk” off-putting, as it’s the sort of vocabulary that I imagine would dominate a Tumblr wordgraph. Also, I work in an industry rife with neologisms, so I weary of it quickly.

But gradually The Argonauts begins to reveal what it’s about, as Nelson details how her pregnancy coincided with her partner Harry Dodge—who identifies as neither male nor female—starting testosterone injections and getting a mastectomy.

I’m reading Nelson’s memoir at a time when my Facebook feed is rife with pregnancy photos. That sounds flip, but in talking to some of my close friends who now have children, one subject that consistently comes up is the way pregnancy changed the relationship they had with their bodies, in large part because something that used to be exclusively theirs must now be shared.

Recently, a woman told me, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to have kids. I don’t want to lose my body.” Hers was something she’d earned — she used to be overweight and had devoted long hours in the gym sculpting a figure to her liking. A baby threatened to take it away.

This is not something I personally can relate to. My body has always been my body and when I’m aware of it, it’s mostly because it’s not performing the way I expect a body to perform (e.g. I can’t touch my toes without bending my knees). That’s not to say I’m without vanity or my own body-centric neurosis, because I have those in spades. It’s just that I’m never in fear of my body suddenly transforming, or needing to share it with a tiny clone of myself.

Interesting too how the act of giving birth becomes an excretion. Nelson writes: “Many women describe the feeling of having a baby come out of their vagina as taking the biggest shit of their lives.”
When I was about eight or nine, I asked my dad (who is a doctor) what giving birth was like and he said, “Lay on your stomach and take a dump.”

I don’t know if Nelson agrees with that assessment, but she writes frankly about her pregnancy, down to the way it affects her bowel movements. I appreciated those moments of candor. When Nelson learns her son is a boy, she writes: “it took me by surprise that my body could make a male body. Many women I know have reported something of the same, even though they know this is the most ordinary of miracles.”

It’s illuminating watching Nelson, through her writing, actively reconcile her body’s changes, the changes to her partner’s body, and the changes to her family. Writing, she says, is a way for her to find clarity.

At times, Nelson leans on her academic background to make sense of her changing situation. Those moments frustrated me the most because it seemed she was using critical theory as a shield. Or maybe that’s just me. I got my BA in English Lit and stopped seeing any relationship between literary theory and the real world. And, yes, I do think of them as binaries.

Nelson would probably disagree. She was obviously able to relate her readings to her circumstances.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

1 Comments on “A House Party Full of Strangers: On Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’”

  1. I could see the duality and relate literary theory to her life too. It was strange actually, seeing the changes being portrayed in the book, but, once, I got into it, it took over me


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