First Pages: Ethan Nosowsky on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson




The first time I read the vertiginous first page of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I was absolutely electrified, but also a little confused (productively so)—and absolutely sure that we would want to publish the book.


I had read a few of Nelson’s books—The Art of Cruelty, Bluets, The Red Parts—and knew that she had also published poetry as well as books about poetry (and poets). I knew that she wrote equally well in lyric and critical modes, and I had learned simply to follow her wherever she wanted to go. She got the synapses firing, no matter the subject. But none of those books, individually or collectively, prepared me for the blast of vitality and intellectual swagger of the opening pages of The Argonauts. And Nelson’s got range. She swerves energetically from the earthiness of hot sex to the more rarefied air of theory and philosophy. And back. And it’s all a little dizzying.


The more modest readers out there may want to grab a fan as you read the first paragraph. As Roxane Gay wrote recently in a post on Twitter, “This is how you start a book”:

October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a pile of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.

I like the way we essentially start with a dateline, which feels right, because The Argonauts is an urgent dispatch from the front lines of new thinking about gender, families, and sex, as well as a meditation on how to talk about these things. The image of the trees stripped bare in the next sentence seems to prepare the way for the rawness and passion of the bedroom scene that follows.


When you start any book, fiction or nonfiction, you wonder about the company you’re about to keep. Who is this narrator? Well, in the third sentence a friend appears who alludes to Nelson’s unapologetic elusiveness, her resistance to being pinned down. But then there’s a hard turn.  Suddenly Nelson is with someone else, a lover who—how to say this on the company blog—is attending well to famished erotic need, and if she was, supposedly, “hard to get,” she is giving herself fully now. The lover asks her a question and “sticks around for an answer.” It seems we’ll be seeing more of this person.


But just when we’re about to settle into the scene with a metaphoric cigarette, there’s another swerve. Now we’re talking about Wittgenstein (maybe that copy of Molloy should have prepared us). What? Here is the second paragraph:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

We’ve moved from the lyric, personal, unabashed and frank mode of Nelson’s cult classic Bluets to the critical mode of inquiry that characterized The Art of Cruelty. There’s something about this mix that extends the tradition of critical inquiry in exciting ways, and I like it.

The third paragraph elaborates the thought:

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

I like how the formality of “For it doesn’t” plays off the idiomatic “ham it up” a couple of lines down. It reads like a sermon delivered by someone you’d actually want to talk to. This is vintage Nelson. She’s showing us that these languages are not oppositional and don’t need to stand in tension with each other. She’s thinking seriously but not academically, and she assumes that you are perfectly capable of following along with her. The disarming intimacy of the first paragraph, and the personal details about love, marriage, child-birthing and child rearing that are woven through the book, are the gas that fuels that thinking.

The Argonauts asks a series of questions about radicalism and domesticity, queerness and homonormativity, language and its limitations. The first page is itself a question about what a book can be. Is this a memoir? A manifesto? A work of critical theory? Does it have to be one of those things? Do any of us really have to be just one thing? I’d ask you to stick around for the answer, but in the spirit of The Argonauts, I’ll just say that I hope you’ll read the book and seek your own.