Maggie Nelson‘s work defies categorization. She is, all at once, a poet, an academic, a memoirist, and a critic. As a reader, one cannot help but place trust in Nelson’s Didion-esque penchant for conveying information and emotion with stark accuracy in the most unsentimental voice possible. It is prose laid bare; prose getting to the root of things. Her most notable works include Jane: A Murder, The Red Parts, Bluets, and The Argonauts, all of which combine her personal experiences with surgical, academic precision that will prove once and for all that you’re not as smart as you think you are.
You might ask yourself, why should I read her work? It sounds complicated.
Despite her fearsome prowess as a writer and thinker, Nelson never blocks herself off from the reader. Her 2015 book, The Argonauts, examines her great love for her spouse—fluidly gendered artist, Harry Dodge—and the experience of being pregnant while Dodge undergoes hormone treatment. Tightly packed paragraphs comprise the book, which is set up similarly to Roland Barthes‘s A Lover’s Discourse. The marginalia is devoted to citing heavyweight writers, academic, and philosophers from whom she draws inspiration and insight to the world in which she lives. None of this is daunting, though. It challenges the reader, for sure. But it’s always for the sake of stringing together all the components of building a life with people you love, discussing queerness, and examining the life of the writer who inevitably experiences these things.
Her work is definitely complex and multi-layered, but it is fascinating. She’ll have you looking up writers and philosophers you’ve never heard of and force you to think about things in ways you might not have beforehand. So it’s not beach reading, but it will make you feel good. Like a cardio workout for the brain…or something like that.
Do you like true crime with a conscience?
Because The Red Parts is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. Murder mysteries and true crime shows/books often show brutal occurrences with a detached air, but The Red Parts examines the trial of a killer from Nelson’s personal perspective. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, was long believed to be a victim of John Collins, the “Coed Killer.” In the process of finishing a book of poetry about the murder (Jane: A Murder), she got a call from a detective in Ann Arbor, Michigan telling her that the police never stopped investigating and that they finally found out who really killed her aunt. In this strange, genre-bending autobiography/memoir, the reader gets a better understanding of what a trial must feel like for a victim’s family and what justice might actually mean.
Well, what books should I start with?
The Red Parts and Jane: A Murder are a good place to start, and they should be read in conjunction with each other. Personally, I love starting with poetry if an author spans different styles of writing. It’s a good way to get a sense of what he or she is really trying to say. And, as with anything else, you should build yourself up to the most challenging pieces of work, so save The Argonauts for last.
You can follow Maggie Nelson and her work on Goodreads.