If you say "Maggie Nelson" to a certain group of literary people, they will get a faraway look in their eyes and start talking about how much her book Bluets changed their life, how they hand it out to all their friends, how they got this one tattoo because of it, etc. Bluets is a book-length collage essay, similar to Nelson's new book, The Argonauts. A collage essay is essentially an essay in fragments—an essay with lots of line breaks. Something between an essay and a poem. Some people call them "lyric essays." Nobody does the collage essay like Maggie Nelson. She cracked some structural code in Bluets that many writers are now trying to copy. But nobody gets it quite as right as she does.
What's the code? What's her secret? As near as I can tell, her strategy is usually this: Over the course of several paragraphs, which are self-contained and gemlike and usually separated with section breaks, Nelson weaves together three big themes within one Mega Theme. The three big themes in Bluets were the color blue, the end of her relationship with a lover, and her thoughts about a mentor/old professor of hers who had become paralyzed after an accident. The Mega Theme of that book is pain.
The big themes in her latest book, The Argonauts, are queer theory, motherhood, and love. The Mega Theme is indeterminacy.
Because of this structure, trying to summarize The Argonauts would be like trying to summarize a thunderstorm. Quoting from the book would be about as helpful to you as grabbing a drop of rain out of the sky. But over time, the narrative of the book describes Maggie Nelson's courtship with and marriage to the artist Harry Dodge, a genderfluid person who takes testosterone during the course of Nelson's pregnancy with their son, Iggy. But it's so much more than that.
The climax of The Argonauts, which I got to see Nelson read in the outdoor auditorium on the leafy campus of Reed College, is a birth scene. It involves Nelson enduring more than 24 hours of labor; peeing while standing up and hugging her partner, Harry; puking into the tub she's giving birth in; and lots of levels of pain (and humor) that I'll never have access to. She read with a no-bullshit, steady intensity that I loved. Crisp, clear, and like she wasn't ashamed of having written it. Why do so many writers read as if they're ashamed of what they've written? Nelson is not ashamed.
She is, however, intimidating, though also gracious and accommodating. I found her by the book-signing table after the reading, congratulated her, and asked if I could interview her, but she was understandably frazzled and a little hoarse, and said she couldn't think at the moment because there was a long line of people whose books she needed to sign.
I very much wanted to write about her book in a one-of-a-kind way, an experimental form worthy of its subject. I even wanted an unconventional photo to pair with the piece, something more than just an image of the dust jacket. I motored out to Sauvie Island to talk with some writer friends about what I should do. One of my friends drew Maggie's name in the sand with a question mark, and I thought that was perfect. The rising tide kept wiping her name away, and so we ended up having to write her name over and over in order to make it stay long enough to snap a photo, as if we needed another lesson in the constancy of change.
Later on, I did get some one-on-one time with Nelson, and the moment after I asked my first question, I realized I was talking with someone who had been performing for people eight hours per day for a week. She wasn't just in Portland for a reading. She'd been in town for a week, teaching a Tin House residency. (Tin House is the name of a fantastic literary magazine out of Portland, and Tin House is its book-publishing concern.) I distinctly perceived that she was just trying to enjoy what peace she could find on this beautiful and warm evening, and here I was, about to come at her with questions. Despite feeling as if I had crashed her last day at camp—some outsider who hadn't been here all week, who didn't get it—I asked if she was ready to do this. I proposed we play Two Truths and a Lie.
The rules of Two Truths and a Lie are pretty simple. She tells me two truths and one lie. I guess which is the lie.
She said, "I love chocolate. My grandmother died young of a brain aneurysm. I'm sure I want to be cremated."
The moment she said that last thing about cremation, I knew that was the one. I knew it couldn't possibly be true. There's no fucking way that Maggie Nelson is sure she wants to be cremated. After all, The Argonauts is all about trying to embrace the unsure, the indeterminate, the fluid as a valid and even ideal approach to life. Being incinerated is so final, so clean, so easy! A corpse enduring the uneven rot of the underground grave is much more Maggie Nelson. Or maybe the weird burn of a beyond-the-horizon Viking's funeral.
I was ecstatic to learn I was right. And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized "indeterminacy" is not just the Mega Theme of The Argonauts, it's the Super Mega Ultra Theme of Maggie Nelson's body of work, the thing behind everything she writes. The theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is quoted liberally throughout The Argonauts, Sedgwick who "wanted to make way for 'queer' to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation."
The Argonauts embodies that idea. It's an electric cloud of queering queerness and smashing binaries and thoughts about gender fluidity and queer family-making and reclaiming anal sex as a motherly thing and also dildos and X-men and it's awesome to behold.
As you might be able to tell from that list (and as Nelson herself admits): This book is not for everyone. Though I'm not queer, the book was "for me" in that queer theory smashes stereotypes and clichés so that the world seems fresh and new. That sort of thing gets me excited.
Nelson's obsession with things that are not one but also not two is a good example. I can't stop thinking about things that are not exactly one but also not exactly two. A pregnant woman. Labia. The gender of a butch on testosterone. Scissors. These are all things that are not one, but not quite two, and their very existence troubles the received notion that something has to be one thing or another.
Another one of my favorite ideas is her notion that perversities—not virtues—are the more accurate measure of compatibility in a relationship.