Even though I’ve read reviews and received lots of strong personal recommendations about “The Argonauts” since it came out in the UK earlier this year, I was still somehow unprepared for the surprisingly clear-sighted wonder induced by Nelson’s thoughtful revelations about love and family. She writes with such refreshing honesty about her lover-than-husband Harry Dodge – a relationship which is at once unique because Harry is transgendered and perfectly ordinary for their desire to create a settled family/home. Harry comes to the relationship with a young son and, after living together for some time, Nelson decides to become pregnant through IVF treatments. She records their personal transformations – Harry’s body changing through testosterone injections and her own body changing in pregnancy – and their development as a family unit. The result is an invigorating and deeply moving meditation on gender roles and sexuality in modern day society.
One of the most exciting things about reading Nelson’s writing is the fine-tuned artistry of her prose. Her sentences are concentrated and direct. There’s an intelligent precision used which is akin to reading Annie Dillard. She recognizes the fallibility and subjectivity of language “Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.” Yet, she knows it’s the only means by which to communicate what she wants to say. She draws upon a huge range of theorists, philosophers and artists including Eileen Myles, Susan Fraiman, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Denise Riley, Sara Ahmed, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Weed, Leo Bersami, Luce Irigaray, Anne Carson, Dodie Bellamy, William James, Michel Foucault, Mary Lambert, Julia Kristeva and Andrew Solomon. She also considers a range of authors who write about raising children. The quotes she selects from these writers are folded into her experiences and thoughts on her particular situation in society to give them immediate relevance. This makes her writing at once highly intelligent and wholly relatable.
Nelson recounts tense moments of confusion where strangers question Harry’s gender, being stalked by a disturbed fan of one of her books and the arduous process of giving birth. She considers how the ideas of some of the aforementioned writers sometimes help her process or conflict with her own unique experiences. Yet, for all the sophisticated references, there is also a wonderful light-heartedness and humour to this book. For instance, when considering a description of female genitalia by Ginsberg she states “I still don’t see the need to broadcast misogynistic repulsion, even in service of fagdom, but I do understand being repelled. Genitalia of all stripes are often slimy and pendulous and repulsive. That’s part of their charm.” This humorously levels all the physical differences of gender to find a commonality outside of sexuality while giving a light-hearted slap to the tendency gay men have for offensively sneering at the female body.
It’s interesting how what Nelson is essentially seeking to create is a rather traditional nuclear family unit through other means. She shows through their struggles and triumphs how every family is unique in its own way. The central metaphor of the book is a boat which is made of component parts that are being continuously replaced, yet it maintains its name. So, as their family undergoes change, the couple at the centre retain something essential about themselves despite superficial differences. The portrait Nelson creates of their experiences isn’t romanticized, but “The Argonauts” feels like one of the most romantic books I’ve read in a long time.