Published in 2015, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending novel that follows Nelson’s life with her partner, Harry, and her struggle to represent their nuptial. Over the course of the novel, we follow Nelson’s early days with Harry, thepregnancy and birth of their child, and her struggle to write of all these events when Harry feels that he is not being accurately represented. Nelson uses theory to frame her narrative and cites theorists in the side margins.
This book does so much to blur notions of gender and genre, as Abbie Titcomb so beautifully puts it in her Honors project. I’m lucky enough to call myself one of Abbie’s friend and watch her thesis on this book develop. I finally read The Argonauts over Thanksgiving break, and this past week, I sat down with Abbie about this incredible book and the revolutionary nature of this theory.
So Abbie. We have this book The Argonauts. What are you doing with The Argonauts? Why did I read The Argonauts?
Okay, so The Argonauts is the first chapter of my Honors project, and Pashmina Murthy, who’s my advisor, recommended that I read it over the summer. I sat down with it one day, and I read it in what felt like an hour. It’s just doing many things that I’ve never seen before, and I love it.
And you said this was for your Honors project. What is it that the larger scope of your Honors project has to deal with that The Argonauts copes with very well?
Yeah, it’s hard to put my project in a couple of words, but I sort of say that it’s on the relationship between genre and gender. More specifically, what is the ability of language or what language do we have to talk about the gendered body. That’s one of The Argonaut’s main concerns is how to represent a body, both physically but also the narrative of the body and if that body has a narrative.
I love that! So what made you want to write about this book? Was there a certain line or a feeling?
I guess, the opening paragraph, which I feel like I read over and over again. When I first read it, it’s such a challenge. It’s a little shocking at first.
Then she comes back again and again to the idea—the one I quote all the time—that “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly! in the expressed.” That’s a reoccurring theme for her, and that really got me interested in it. It’s such a funny construction as well.
I guess one of the things that I also relate to personally is the way that Maggie Nelson witnesses—or bears witness—to someone who she loves and the process of changing and their bodies in transition. It causes her to question a lot of things about herself, and I feel personally connected to that.
There’s also the idea of how she talks about that—that you can never be another person, but you can bear witness to another person—is really interesting. And I find a lot of thoughts are thoughts that I’ve had.
And so much of this is about bearing witness and the difficulties of that, how is your writing about that a further step away? Like how has it been writing about not being able to adequately write about a person?
I think there’s the acknowledgement that you can never fully bear witness or an acknowledgement that words can never be enough—that one word isn’t enough, and two words isn’t enough, and a sentence isn’t enough, and a paragraph isn’t enough, and a whole book.
I feel like it’s a recognition that they’re not is so important, and that’s what this book is doing. It repeatedly says that it’s not enough but that it needs to try, and I like that. It’s sort of a—I think it’s a positive. I think you could write this book in a different way where it would be a negative, like “this book is a failure because it doesn’t do anything.” But then, there’s a really positive thing of it’s not enough but it’s good enough.
She ends with a really happy image of her son, Iggy, and her stepson. Her stepson holding Iggy and spinning him around, and her and her partner are running around the room, scrambling to get everything out of the way. I love that it ends on such a happy note, like we’re just going to let this moment be.
Yeah, and I could talk about a lot of different things in terms of structure, but even in the last page, she quotes these three theorists, some of the most dense theorists. But the last paragraph is her own, and she references this song that’s sort of an opening into the world of “this isn’t enough” but there’s a quality or a feeling with a song—
Kind of like the song being able to express more?
I love that. That’s a beautiful last moment, and this kind of writing is incredibly important to this cultural moment. Can you articulate why this is so important as well as other trends you’ve seen in literature or criticism that you find really exciting or empowering in that way?
I have a line in my proposal about this being important for this particular moment in time,and the other books I’m working with are very recent. I feel like there’s a stall in theory. I don’t know how true this is, but it seems that you get to a discussion of identity politics and then you stop and there’s no more discussion after that, because identity politics—no one has an answer to that.
But I think one way to go from there is not to talk about identity politics but to talk about language, which I guess are related but I see them as different things. This book, she just sort of lets Harry be, or that she comes to letting Harry be. It seems to be bringing us in a different direction with a focus on language, which I haven’t seen done before. In terms of other theorists, Judith Butler, obviously. She helps structure my chapter, so I include a quote from her at the very beginning about how you can only know yourself in relation to others. Judith Butler. Always.
If Judith Butler’s reading this, hit up Abbie Titcomb.
Oh, I really hope so. Judith Butler!
So, what are other important things that you want someone to know about The Argonauts or why they might want to read it? Do you have a favorite passage?
My book automatically opens to page 46 and 47. It’s a part where she shows a draft of The Argonauts to Harry, who’s her partner. She writes about showing him a draft in the final version. I think that, just in itself, is a cool idea. Harry is really upset by this. I really like the line, “he tells me he feels unbeheld—unheld, even. I know this is a terrible feeling.” Then they go through the draft of the book page by page.
I’m working with this idea right now of the relationship of being held by words and how that might relate to bearing witness, because to bear someone is also to hold someone. I think this is sort of the crux of the book, in some ways.
Harry finds these words not good enough, and Nelson is searching for a way that they might be good enough. I think including this scene, which in some ways it’s a very intimate scene, and for her as a writer, I can imagine it being very hard writing about someone who doesn’t like your writing or feels that it’s just not enough.
Especially an intimate partner.
Yeah, it’s not the happiest moment, but it’s what this book is in some ways. And then also the ending! Also the birth scene, which is kind of gross but amazing at the same time.
There’s also a part where Nelson’s talking to her friend about how she has all these photos and videos that Harry took—because he’s a visual artist—from her birth. And Nelson is very upset because her mom doesn’t want to look at the photographs, and Nelson’s like “Why mom, this was a big achievement for me!” And I think the friend is sort of like, “Okay, calm down.”
I think it just gives an excellent image of the way she thinks, like she wantseveryone to see her birthing. It’s amazing. There’s also an image that I now have as my screensaver. It’s the best image ever. I just spend hours trying to read every single title on her shelf, and she has a children’s section, and I think that’s adorable.
I feel like I reference this book in every single class, and I have to stop myself from referencing it in class. One time I tried to reference the breast-feeding scene in reference to Song of Solomon, and it really didn’t go over well.
I think cause no one really had context for it, and everyone was like, “Wow, Abbie’s really coming out of left field here.”
Yeah! I also had a discouraging moment where my sister read the first page and was like “This is very pretentious.” I feel like there’s a way that it can be off-putting to have theorists. I don’t know, she’s—we talking about in class the other day how theory permeates our lives, and that we’ve reached a point of theory after theory. I don’t know. I think it’s accessible. I think it is.
I just want everyone to read it so that I can talk about it. I also want everyone to read it so that I can understand it better. So I’m very glad you read it.
Oh, I loved it. I don’t think I understand it at all, but I think it’s incredible. And your copy is just so marked up of going through it time and time again and trying to unpack more and more of it.
Also, I’m really interested of putting Citizen with it. Citizen is another book published by Graywolf Press, which is fantastic.
By Claudia Rankine.
Yes, and I think it might be doing very similar things. What Nelson does for the gendered body, Rankine does for the racialized body.
Footnote:  Harry is fluidly-gendered but often goes by “he.”
Abbie Titcomb is a gender theorist and senior English major at Kenyon College. She will be completing her Honors thesis on the relationship of gender and genre this coming spring. She is from Sandwich, Massachusetts.