The Argonauts – BOOK REVIEW

In a new series on my blog, I will be writing essays of the texts I am currently studying for my Creative Writing MA course, including my own opinions on the piece as well as a look into the creative devices each writer employs.


Nelson’s The Argonauts is technically a memoir, but also functions as an autobiography, critical analysis, monologue and piece of comic writing all in one. This is reflective of the ever-changing and multi-faceted nature of the author’s identity as she explores motherhood, queer relationships, gender transition alongside her writing craft. In his article on Nelson’s life and writing, Hilton Als comments that she discusses “the self-mythologizing that goes into making a transformed self.”[1]

This is a memoir filled with allusions and critical theory, with Nelson placing her experiences into the canon, into the realm of critical truth. At its heart, I found The Argonauts to be a love story in which the author gave analytical weight to her and her partner Harry’s place within, and outside of, heteronormative institutions as queer individuals. In a sense, this book is her declaration of love.

“You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. Our waiter cheerfully tells us about his family, expresses delight in ours. On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.”

In the opening page, Nelson discusses her love for Wittgenstein’s idea that “the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed”, and how she occasionally comes at odds with this idea (for example, the notion of gendered pronouns and the impossible binary it offers to Harry who does not identify with either). Nelson brings the inexpressible into the expressed, particularly her candid, stark descriptions of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. She articulates her frustration at how these topics are frequently painted as at odds with high culture, art and critical debate. They are trapped within a domestic sphere, much to the frustration of Nelson, who sees these periods as ones of great, emotional change, yet deemed as trivial within academic spaces.

To remedy this, she intertwines the everyday and heightens them with critical debate and quotations of theorists and artists she has admired throughout her career. Nelson simultaneously explores the “everyday dramas” as well as, as Olivia Laing writes, “a reconsideration of what the institutions established around sexuality and reproduction mean if you come at them at a slant, if you disrupt them by the very fact of your being.”[2] Similarly to Zadie Smith’s Intimations, Nelson offers a myriad of perspectives one could take in life, and like her own foetus who “makes space where there was none before”, she opens up a space that rejects binaries and rigid gender roles, offering a space for fluidity and expression.

In terms of her writing style, I found her use of metafiction most interesting. Whilst the book is a memoir, so does not set up any premise of fiction, she frequently draws attention to the text’s own literariness, for example when she writes, “I’ve explained this elsewhere. But I’m trying to say something different now” and “I finish a first draft of this book and give it to Harry.” These provide comic moments, where Harry struggles to see themself depicted in a literary format, and how this intrusion into their life proves to challenging for them. Again, this idea expressing the inexpressible manifests in a unique way: what is deemed too personal to be written in a memoir?

I also enjoyed her use of the pronoun “you” that permeates throughout the entire text, creating a personal, intimate tone that marries with the private confessions and stories she shares. I found the line, “I want the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person never need apply” incredibly poignant whilst also articulating the impossible nature of English pronouns for those who are non-binary. Exploring everyday moments alongside critical theories and ideologies becomes a way in which Nelson can philosophise the everyday and seemingly mundane so that her lived experiences gather more weight and significance.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Argonauts was her unapologetic exploration of women’s issues that are often side-lined and not discussed in such academic, literary perspectives. Not only were her depictions of pregnancy and childbirth incredibly candid, but she brought these experiences into a literary space, countering the tired diatribe of pregnancy and relationships (particularly from a less frequently documented, queer perspective) being mere ‘identity politics’ when found in literature. The Argonauts, ultimately is a loving, moving tribute to her partner and family and immortalises their love and life into the critical realm.


[1] Als, Hilton. “Immediate Family: Maggie Nelson’s life in words.” The New Yorker, 11 April 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/maggie-nelsons-many-selves

[2] Laing, Olivia. “The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review.” The Guardian, 23 April 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/23/the-argonauts-maggie-nelson-review-harry-dodge-transgender

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