‘Love and Pronoun Avoidance: A Review of Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts”’, by Lou Spence


American author and critic Maggie Nelson’s seventh book, The Argonauts, is a slippery, transgenre work of autobiographical writing about Nelson’s attempt, with her non-binary trans partner Harry Dodge, at building a queer family while resisting homonormativity. It’s also a book about parenting, in the Winnicottian sense of holding and beholding, and a book that I, as a non-binary trans reader, approached with a desire to feel held and beheld, mirrored, validated – admittedly a fairly high bar to clear.

In the central narrative of the book, Harry’s medical transition occurs alongside Nelson’s pregnancy. We learn about both processes intimately, because Nelson writes the body into the text at every turn: her own body moving through pregnancy and childbirth; Harry’s body throughout hormone treatment and top surgery; the baby in utero and then once it emerges; and the body of Harry’s mother as she lays dying and then as she dies. Nelson places these experiences next to each other in juxtapositions that would seem obvious if she weren’t so good at extracting nuance every time.

The text is structured not by chapter or sentence, but by paragraph. Each one sits alone between wide margins, separated from those before and after with thick bands of empty space. The time of the book moves non-chronologically, and Nelson’s often startling, sometimes dense paragraphs are arranged in a way that, though linear, suggests a complex web. Theorists, poets, and other writers are cited throughout (Eileen Myles, Judith Butler, CA Conrad), their words italicised, their names in the margins, but their inclusion is otherwise unpunctuated and never breaks the flow. The theory and criticism enriches and stitches together the personal story being told, and the story renders the theory more immediate and intelligible. Ideas and thinkers are dropped and picked up, elaborated, deflated, dismissed.

The relationship between Nelson and Dodge is the heart of The Argonauts, which is fundamentally a love story. “The words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time [Harry] fuck[s] me in the ass,” Nelson tells us in the opening paragraph.1 The two are talking about moving in together, but Nelson still doesn’t know which pronoun Harry uses, and can’t bring herself to ask. When talking to others she uses Harry’s name over and over again, but when it’s just her and Harry, pronouns never come up. As it turns out, Harry’s pronouns are not set in stone – “he” seems to be generally preferred, but as Nelson notes, “words change depending on who speaks them.” In the text, the pronoun she most often uses for Harry is “you”, which, as a strategy, has its pros and cons. On the one hand, the reader is invited to identify with Harry, with whom we share the “you” pronoun, rather than to objectify or other him. “Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak,” we are told, in a frank and normalising description of gender dysphoria. On the other hand, Nelson sometimes exposes Harry while seeming to address him. The closed conversational loop of a person addressing their lover seems to imply that lover’s complicity. But the account we are given of Harry’s gender history, including previous legal names, nicknames, and pronouns, would feel pretty uncomfortable in the third person, as would parts of the depiction of Harry’s experience on hormones. “Via T you’ve experienced surges of heat, an adolescent budding, your sexuality coming down from the labyrinth of your mind,” Nelson tells us, and: “[That] is who you were for the next twenty-odd years. Becky.” Elsewhere, she describes Harry as “a very private person”. In instances like this, and they abound, the “you” feels like a Band-Aid over the ethical questions raised by a cis person exposing their trans partner, and by the narrative question of whether such exposing is really necessary.

Harry’s trans-ness is only one subject of the text, but as a trans reader, with an identity close enough to Harry’s that I thought about copying down whole passages and sending them to my mother, it was a subject to which I was destined to attach emotional significance. And much of Nelson’s writing about gender is pretty wonderful. The reflexivity and circularity of her work resists over-simplifications. She never tries to resolve the contradictions of Harry’s gender, while bearing witness to its lived reality. She talks about the pain Harry experiences after years of binding his chest, a daily reality that I’ve never had represented back to me before. She places us in the dicey moment that inevitably occurs when Harry, passing in some situation, has to present a driver’s license or credit card with his legal name on it. She describes administering T shots for Harry as “a gift”, but she also represents her own fear about the unknown changes testosterone might bring. She lets ambiguity and ambivalence exist—as she puts it, “sometimes the shit stays messy”—and this is also a kind of gift.

Early on, Nelson describes Harry’s wounded reaction to reading the first draft of the book. “Why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me?” he asks, and the couple go through the draft page by page and attempt to correct the problem. Although, presumably, I’m reading the corrected version, I understand Harry’s frustration. When Nelson is taking Harry as her subject, her grasp of his gendered self, his needs and his fears can be tender and subtle. But when her focus shifts, it’s as if the possibility of trans-ness evaporates. Nelson’s relationship with trans-ness is at one remove, and she is clear about not wanting the burden of “represent[ing] anything.” But, without dismissing the complex work she does here, or unduly expecting Nelson to get everything right, I had moments, as a trans reader, of feeling so beheld, so seen, so validated by paragraphs in The Argonauts, that I felt sinking disappointment at other times when I realised that Nelson had failed to include trans people in her thinking at all.

Pregnancy is the site of a lot of this. Nelson uses the word women, never defined or qualified, in relation to almost everything about pregnancy. She wants to rescue pregnancy from the presumption that it is heteronormative: “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it … occasions a radical intimacy with—and radial alienation from—one’s body?” she asks. And this is certainly valid. But in the same paragraph, she attributes pregnancy to “the female animal”, and goes on doing so throughout. Apart from Harry, the exception to the rule, Nelson’s assumption that pregnancy is strictly for women, and that anatomy is inherently gendered, is never really deconstructed.

Twenty weeks in, she finds out that her baby is “a boy, without a shadow of a doubt,” presumably because the technician spotted a penis in the ultrasound. She grieves the loss of a fantasised “feminist daughter”, a “femme ally” in a household containing Harry, his son from another relationship, and a male dog. “But that was not my fate, nor was it the baby’s,” she concedes, as if the baby’s fate were already set in stone. As if the presence of a penis cancelled out the possibility of being femme, or feminist, or female. Thankfully, Harry steps in with a trans corrective: “Hey, I was born female, and look how that turned out.” But this happens again and again. Sometimes Harry is there to correct her, and other times he’s not.

Nelson’s writing about race too is uneasy. She and Harry, who are both white, choose the Native American name “Igasho” for their baby. They then cast around defensively for a way to justify it. Isn’t Harry part Cherokee? Well, no, apparently not. Luckily, a Native lactation consultant appears at the right moment and says, “If anyone ever gives you trouble about your baby’s name, you tell them that a full tribe member … gave you her blessing.” Nelson does tell us, whether we were inclined to give her trouble or not, but her justification rates pretty low even on the scale of ‘my Native friend said it was okay’ type excuses. “I like to think she had an intuition that something about identity was loose and hot in our house, as, perhaps, it was in hers,” Nelson writes. Well… okay.

Nelson compares her personal writing to playing the Atari game Breakout: the slow labour of chipping away at a bank of rainbow in order to reach the sky and break away. “I need those colored bricks to chip away at,” she writes, “because the eating into them makes form.” My criticism of Nelson is in this spirit. Not of diminishment, but of chipping away at what is there to enable my own form to break through. It is the nature of The Argonauts that readers will highlight the paragraphs that feel, to them, indispensably important and true.

As for the rest, the stuff that doesn’t work for you, chip it away.

Lou Spence is a queer writer and artist based in Melbourne.

1. The book’s title comes from a passage by Roland Barthes she sends Harry in a moment of vulnerability after this confession. Barthes compares the phrase “I love you” to the myth of the Argo, the ship that is rebuilt completely without its name being changed: “Whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.”