Lighting Up: On Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’
By Adam Boretz
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts — a work of “autotheory” and a memoir of sorts — pretty much destroyed me. I loved the fragmentary, mosaic storytelling — which Dan described in his great post from earlier in the week — but more than that, I loved the way Nelson’s prose affected me.
While reading The Argonauts, I felt as if parts of my brain — unused and atrophied from the daily grind of days jobs and mind-numbing escapism — were lighting up, as synapses fired and curiosity and creativity were resurrected. And, take it from me: reading a brilliant writer and discovering that your brain/soul hasn’t been totally destroyed by the The Machine is both a pleasure and a relief.
Additionally, in a literary landscaped absolutely blighted by memoir — celebrity memoirs, rock memoirs, sports memoirs, memoirs of addiction, memoirs of recovery, memories about illness, memoirs about death, memoirs about abuse, memoirs about doing wacky shit for a brief period of time, memoirs about religion, memoirs about spirituality, memoirs about cooking, memoirs about reading, memoirs about writing memoirs — it was refreshing to read The Argonauts. This “genre-bending memoir” (as it is described on the book jacket) presents readers with the lives of Nelson and her partner, Harry Dodge — and the changes in their lives, bodies, and family — in a way that is honest, sincere, thoughtful, and riveting. In a way that made me truly care about two people I have never met.
There are so many moments from the book I’d like to mention. But let’s take just two.
First, that moment at the Sheraton after Dodge’s mastectomy — the one that is perhaps the most profound description of love between two people I have read in a very long time:
Over and over again we emptied your drains into little Dixie cups and flushed the blood stuff down the hotel toilet. I’ve never loved you more than I did then, with your Kool-Aid drains, your bravery in going under the knife to live a better life, a life of wind on skin, your nodding off while propped up on a throne of hotel pillows, so as not to disturb your stitches. “The king’s sleep,” we called it, in homage to our first pay-per-view purchase of the week, The King’s Speech.
The second moment, with which it feels right to conclude this brief post, is the death of Dodge’s mother — the text of which is taken, I am told, from an email Dodge wrote to family and friends:
i told her one more time, you are surrounded in love, you are surrounded in light, don’t be afraid. and her neck was pulsing a little bit? her eyes were looking at something in another place. her mouth needed less air, less often and her chin moving more slowly. i never wanted it to end. i have never wanted infinity to open up under an instant like i wanted that then. and then her eyes relaxed and her shoulders relaxed of a piece. and I knew she had found her way. dared. summoned up her smarts and courage and whacked a way through. i was really astonished. proud of her. i looked at the clock it was 2:16.