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A Book Review That is Not One: On Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

By Christopher Schaberg.

Seven years ago I was finishing up my doctoral work at the University of California, Davis. I was writing a dissertation about airports in American literature and culture; I was exerting my PhD’s “designated emphasis” in Critical Theory, applying concepts of postmodern identity, the production of space, and semiotic indeterminacy to a range of primary texts. At the same time, I was pushing against some of the more tedious strictures of the genre of the doctoral dissertation—even in the most simple way, by titling my thesis “Airport Reading,” and refusing to provide a lengthy, jargon-flinging, name-dropping subtitle.

Here I am seven years later, on the verge of a semester in which I will teach a creative nonfiction workshop, followed a few hours later by a course on critical theory. I find myself increasingly spread between these two subfields of my discipline, one in-your-face experimental and risking an “anything goes” mentality; the other very much entrenched (although it does not like to think of itself as such) in certain ideas, foundational texts, and methods deemed of value in the service of revaluating all values. Often creative writing and literary criticism are seen as distant ends on the strange spectrum that is the discipline of English. Occasionally these two poles collapse and smash together, and the results can be jarring or thrilling, or both.

Maggie Nelson’s latest book, The Argonauts (Graywolf, 2015), bridges this divide, or troubles it—or perhaps bridging it is troubling it. It’s thrilling and jarring. To summarize that the book is about the fluidity of sexual identity would be to seize on only one part of the book; Nelson is really interested in all manner of transitions that together, messily and lusciously, become human experience. Sampling everything from gender bending to being stalked, from making art to mundane acts of parenting, from birthing to passing, and from desire to death, Nelson dispenses with any stable center point from which the author might knowingly, authoritatively settle things.

The book is also about writing. Nelson pulls back the curtain to expose an unseemly writing process, and in so doing the book deftly deflates its own author-ego, even as it is of course asserted over the course of each page. The Argonauts is relentlessly aware of its linguistic fabrications, bearing it all in direct prose while reminding the reader that, for instance, “One must also become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly.” The book is a cobbled together and sometimes capricious seeming performance—a project that disavows its own coherence, its own necessary attempt at resolution.

And yet, what we have in the end is a book: probably ~45,000 words of exploration, rumination, and meditation—all appearing under the covering cipher of The Argonauts. If the book seems at once sprawling in its subject and arbitrarily limited, this would seem to fulfill the promise of the title, as something that retains identity even as it shifts material components and shape.

The book is littered with ultra minimal citations in the form of names dropped in the margins, usually (but not always) corresponding with an italicized sort-of-quotation. It’s an attempt to cite-without-citing, a grasp at appropriating while also flagging, or paying homage via callouts rather than by scrupulous footnotes. I found this tactic distracting and vaguely annoyingly, at first; it felt like name-dropping, as if these spectral figures were supposed to be assuring me of Nelson’s academic street cred. Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Michel Foucault—we get it, you went to grad school, yay for you. But I’m just being a jerk; I didn’t really feel that way. I could appreciate these sparse anchor points from another angle: they held down the text, a text that could at times seem to be floating away. And if they made me wonder about the provenance or context of each quasi-citation, isn’t this perfectly fine, and potentially productive? In my new book, The End of Airports, I did something similar with aphoristic lines drawn from other writers, sans citation; it might be experienced as irritating, but my wager was that it would spark intellectual adventure. I like to think that Nelson made a similar gamble with The Argonauts’ oblique references.

As I’ve observed, the text does drift. Sometimes it feels like the nearly unedited transcripts of a journal, entries jumping around in time or associatively in ways that make the reader struggle to connect the dots. At one point Nelson tells the reader that she used her marginalia from graduate school texts as fodder to create poems. Recycling is in the air. So too here, The Argonauts almost resembles a seasoned blog stripped of context and reproduced as a book—indeed, even the paragraph breaks absent of indents bear this formal trace. And while Nelson alludes to qualms concerning online hyper-communication, the book is nevertheless entangled with digital media from the first pages—Google beckons.

Lest this make the book sound sloppy, Nelson is acutely aware of the multimedia tapestry being woven in The Argonauts. What makes Nelson’s project work so well is how it shuttles relentlessly between forms, genres, even audiences. At times I was frustrated that The Argonauts seemed to be demanding too much homework from lay readers, while at other times Nelson risked playing too fast and loose for academic readers. But maybe these are the cardinal virtues of Nelson’s book, risks that both “creative writers” and “critical theorists” could learn from.

And really, do we even need these ridiculous appellations? How do writers get slotted into such narrow conceptions and slapped with counterproductive labels?

I started this review autobiographically, and for a reason. As I read The Argonauts I marveled at Nelson’s deft moves between high theoretical concepts and sincere personal reflection. I found myself thinking back on my own graduate studies, and all of the skilled writers I met who were, for better or worse, being corralled into this or that type of writing, creative or critical. What an unfortunate and false choice! And truth be told, it was not even that bad at UC Davis, where graduate students had (at least it seemed to me) plenty of latitude in terms of style, approach, method, voice, and form. But this dichotomy has been institutionalized at large, and I hear it perpetuated all too often. Someone will say, “oh yeah, so and so is working on a collection of stories, but first they have to publish their dissertation book!” Or, “well yes I write nonfiction, but I have to finish my novel in order to get tenure….” This kind of book vs. that kind of book; a Platonic publisher fawning after a mythical monograph; the blustery winds of a certain “next book project” that would obviously be a fit for a certain Big Name Press. And these micro-narratives are often bandied about before anything has really even been written!

What have we done to writing? How did these awkward categories come to so tightly regulate—and often snuff out—the creative and critical fire that, finally, has to be burning beneath any writer who simply has to write a book? This is a well-trod debate, for sure, and one we usually wisely avoid, for fear of falling down a rabbit hole that turns into a many branching sub-terrain of disciplinary history and pointless spats between literary icons and condescending critics. But The Argonauts got me thinking anew about the terms of this debate—critics vs. writers—and thinking too that we may be in a new era with respect to this divide: it may be finally eroding, or showing new stress fractures, anyway.

The Argonauts made me think about the books that might be written if many scholars/writers were not bound by idiosyncratic and capricious so-called “standards” or genre conventions of scholarship and publication. I finished the last pages of the book wishing there were more books like this—which is admittedly an awkward thing to think in relation to a book that strikes one again and again as so excellently singular. Still, I found myself thinking about various writer/critic friends, thinking “so and so could write a great book like this!”—“like this” meaning the hybrid nature of autotheory  that Nelson has mastered, but that we recognize in the works of Roland Barthes, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, and somewhat rare others who occupy the bizarre canon of criticism.

In this vein, The Argonauts also caused me to reflect on why Ian Bogost and I came up with our series Object Lessons. Ian and I wanted to create a venue for writers to write in their own ways, for wide audiences, about things that interested them. This may sound terribly unfocused, but it turns out to be anything but. Object Lessons books demand a kind of intensity of attention and concision that makes their titular objects pop into focus, replete with weird inner lives and tendrils spilling onto the page. When I first read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets a few years ago, I remember thinking that it could have been an Object Lessons book, that this was what I envisioned for the series: it was refreshingly short, captivatingly personal, and full of sincere wonder. Bluets showed me what Object Lessons books could do—a standard of delightful unpredictability and concentration, together.

I’m losing the thread here. Or maybe not. Anyway, I warned you this was a book review that is not one. But to close more or less on the book in question: The Argonauts got me thinking about why we write, and why we write what we write. And who we write for. These are topics that you’d think we’d keep in mind—“we” being writing instructors—but I think we lose sight of these things all too often. Do we write for readers? Who do we imagine our readers to be? Do we sometimes write for readers yet to come? How should we keep these questions in mind as we actually, really, write?

So, what am I going to do with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? Teach it as a jumping off point (a “perch,” to use Nelson’s word) for my creative nonfiction workshop? Or assign it as a deliciously messy concluding text for my critical theory course? Should I do both? And then, what about as it relates to my own writing? Will I take Nelson’s cue and join her “ongoing song” of curiosity, critique, and care for the strangeness of life? Yes, I will.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, The End of Airports, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 9th, 2015.