I mostly enjoyed this book, and I think because it is imperfect. I also respect it a lot, not only for its boldness and intimacy, but because I think Maggie Nelson is willing to be messy, contradictory, and occasionally wrong in ways that writers are often afraid of. This book is essentially a long meditation on various interlocking themes, always personal, but equally tied to big-picture concerns like sexuality, gender, language, love that writers always try to nail the final word on. Nelson never does, she knows she can’t, so she instead invites us to watch her try her best. That means some parts of the book are bizarre, far-fetched, obscure, cringeworthy, or wrong. But there are moments of brilliance and beauty, and I think these require the mistakes, I never wanted them edited out. I read this book quickly, and thus there’s a lot in it that I can’t really unpack and some things that I personally don’t think I know enough to comment on. I learnt a lot, though, and I think this is best read quickly and fluidly – to take “the pleasure of abiding” as Nelson puts it – rather than trying hard to work through Nelson’s thoughts given that they are often scattershot, instinctual, repetitive, and subject matter shifts sometimes within a paragraph. If this book has a form, it’s a tangent, or a series of tangents that are networked together by ideas, feelings, or sometimes just the sound or texture of the words. This builds, however, to a really stunning conclusion, where Nelson smartly hones in on two life-defining moments for herself and her partner, and crystallises her concerns imperfectly – she admits as much – but with emotional heft and clarity.
Two things I took away particularly:
- This book deals with subjects and experiences many people – myself included – aren’t really connected to personally (at least not yet) and its very intellectually dense, but I never felt that Nelson was talking down to her reader, instead she’s insanely empathetic and intimate, and she doesn’t wave her (genuinely) “radical” behaviour as something unattainable or fashionable. She gives the impression of almost falling into things by accident, as a consequence of following her instincts and desires, and that makes the book so much more accessible, fun(ny), and meaningful
- Given that this is lots of personal anecdotes and stories, and that Nelson tries to tie them to bigger ideas, this can come across as self-indulgent to some, the classic mistake of thinking your own experiences are the experience of everyone. But Nelson isn’t afraid to show herself as occasionally ignorant, solipsistic, or narcissistic in her feelings and ideas. For her, this is part of the messy process of trying to understand things that are new to you, you make mistakes. By including these elements I felt instead that she was capturing a rare kind of self-effacement, the inherent difficulty in trying to relate one’s personal life and feelings to “theories” or ideas that are apparently meant to explain them, or radical demands that completely upend our conception of them. A lot of writers – especially academics - instead write with knowledge presumed, or as if it just isn’t very difficult for others to accept what they are saying: this appears to be objective, but is actually pretty arrogant. Nelson definitely believes the personal is political, but equally, that any text that is going to deal with these terrifyingly human aspects of ourselves – love, sex, childbirth, parenting, discrimination, violence, desire - requires the repeated challenges of “lived experience” as academics like to call it, hence you’re back to the drawing board, the tangents and the concentric circles of the ideas that now feel much more humble, relevant, and achieveable.
Graphic: Sexual content, Pregnancy, and Death of parent
Moderate: Grief, Dysphoria, Medical content, and Religious bigotry
Minor: Incest and Alcoholism