Just finished The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. All mixed up. Not sure whether I liked it or hated it. I've never had to read something that so regularly refers to my specific demographic- white, straight cis-male- with a kind of easy, backhanded disdain . But the fact that it rankled definitely forced me to step back and identify why I should get so butthurt about it. And fact is, those references were mostly tangential to the point of the book anyway, so then I had to examine why I should focus so much attention on those small asides.
When it gets down to the meat and potatoes of the book, half of me wants to like it; Nelson is fucking smart, and she writes sentences that I have to sit and diagram, and then kind of walk around and squint at from every angle before I get the full meaning. And then those sentences interact with others in a way that changes the color of both and then I have to start all over. There's a joy to her writing that I haven't had to contend with in a long time of reading easy escapist fiction. Also, she just talks about worlds I'm only familiar with in the kind of glancing, benign ways afforded by a comfortable, cloistered progressive lifestyle. Gender fluidity, you say? Empowerment? Sounds nice, sure! But then she follows through and approaches my particular lifestyle with the reflexive dismissal that I imagine much of the country reserves for any facet of queer culture and wait, what the fuck did I do to YOU, lady? Don't pigeonhole me in with the knuckledraggers, some of my BEST FRIENDS are gay! I have a trans cousin, that's gotta count for something, right? And so on, etc. Which is exactly the kind of knuckledragger reaction I generally sneer at in others, and thus a great one to pick at and try to correct. I dunno whether she purposefully tries to elicit this response or whether she's just not writing for my demo and she really feels this way; either way, it achieves the same purpose, and it's pretty good food for the soul.
The other half of me hates it, for reasons I think are legit, or noble in a literary sense, but I dunno, maybe I'm just being a misogynist? Which is a great illustration of why I hate it; the book in both subject matter and style inoculates itself from any "mainstream" criticism. At many junctures, Nelson highlights her own uncertainties and hypocrisies- acknowledges, for instance, that she fights her own urge to categorize, sometimes unsuccessfully. She wants to believe that there are no obvious taxonomies when it comes to human experience, esp vis a vis love and family structure, but her pedigree as a writer and an academic make it difficult. Which I get. But then she turns around and says something blithe like "heteroromanticism has always left me feeling icky," or something of the sort. Which, what the fuck? You can't say that all love should be approached from an individualistic point of view, but then write off an entire subset of love. Or rather, you can, but it makes you look like a hypocrite and a schmuck. Even if you acknowledge in the same breath that you recognize your own biases.
Another example: early in the book, Nelson refers to a symposium she attended where one feminist philosopher was torn apart by another for publishing photographs of her (the first) with her kids in domestic settings. She was railed for basically trying to elevate humdrum family dreck into high feminist art/philosophy. Nelson uses the anecdote to elucidate her own point of view; essentially: "I side with the first lady." She then ends the book with a blow-by-blow account of her labor and the birth of her son. Spoiler alert: that shit is boring. No, man, you're just a straight white cis-male and you'll never get to fully appreciate the experience no. Shut up. It's boring. Nelson is a great writer, and this portion of the book reads like every other account of every other birth. It's like the two hundred and sixty photos of your vacation to Belize that you put in an iPhoto slideshow to play for the family at Thanksgiving. It's important to you, and that's great. But it's not singular. And you can't make it singular by pre-emptively discrediting critics of your point of view on the matter.
Incidentally, Nelson tries to elevate this anecdote by interspersing it with an account, written by her partner, of her partner's vigil with their(?pronoun still unclear?) dying mother. It only serves to subtract from Nelson's account of her labor- both by making the whole thing feel like a cheap, overused trick (juxtaposition of new life on top of death and the beauty therein) and thus a little bit exploitative, and also because Nelson's writing compares unfavorably to her partner's, which is plainspoken, beautiful, and cuts like a knife.
Still not sure where I stand on the book, and I really don't know if it deserved the unanimous praise it got when it came out (mostly by people who are way smarter and "in the know" than I am, so I guess that's points for praise), but goddamn did it make me think.
Now I'm reading The Dark Tower series by Stephen King for the umpteenth time, and I'm not thinking at all, and frankly it's great.