Monday, 24 September 2018

Book review: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (2015)

This experimental novel reads like a series of cuttings from catalogues made for art exhibitions. The tone is learned and this removes the reader from the action (if that is what you want to call the things that transpire in it) making it very difficult to form ideas about the characters who are presented to you.

The main character is a woman with a small son who strikes up a relationship with another person, who is presumably also a woman, and she has a child of her own. But nothing is confirmed (or not in the part of the text I finished, which was about 14 percent of the whole) so you’re left wondering all the time about how you are supposed to think or feel about what takes place in the story, such as it is.

A lot of the time the narrator refers to things that have been taken out of books that she finds germane to her own case, but there is an attempt to create a more enduring set of feelings when she starts talking about her own stepfather. This tactic is not fully realised however as she then goes off talking about something else that distracts her attention. Nothing gets hammered down and you are left floundering in a morass of ideas that do not mean much at all.

For me reading, I remembered the readings that I had done especially in my early twenties when I got interested in American literature and went off exploring in the wildernesses of learning with volumes secured in the university library and from second-hand bookshops. I would get on my racing bike in my apartment in Glebe and ride into George Street in the city looking for poetry and novels at Goulds’ opposite the Hoyts cinema that would satisfy my curiosity. On the other hand, I never managed to finish a book of postmodern theory, although I did read some of a book by Roland Barthes at one stage during my undergraduate degree.

Nelson’s book is an unfortunately remote exercise, in reading which you never really get to know the characters. This seems to me to be a fatal flaw. At least you need to have a handle on where the ideas are centred in the narrative. At least you need to give your reader something concrete to hold onto as you go about trying to render visible the inexpressible you feel at the core of your being. At least you need to be kind, or considerate.

I was reminded after putting the book down of the novel by the Australian journalist Bridie Jabour that I had read earlier in the year and which was reviewed here on 27 July. Titled ‘The Way Things Should Be’, it tells the story of a family brought together to celebrate the marriage of one of its members. In the end it all ends in tears and the daughter who causes most of the drama is the one who is a lesbian. Her animus against her mother results in a catastrophic misstep that almost leads to someone’s death. I thought that it was apt for Jabour to end her book in that way. The identities of urban minorities are usually still merely formulated in opposition to something else, rather than as a delirious affirmation of something unique that they find in themselves.

At bottom I’m in favour of privileging the aspirations of people like the women described in this novel and I understand the need they feel to establish the credibility. in relation to the mainstream. of their own heroes, their own models of conduct to follow. But the trick for someone like Nelson is how to make the politics of queer identity universal so that any reader can understand what it is like to live in that world. This book just doesn’t do that well enough.

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