On Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, Ten Years Later
How the book paved the way for the The Argonauts
The Red Parts is about a strangling in 1969, but its other recurring violent act is that of drowning. As a teenager, the author Maggie Nelson bathes in the dark with coins over her eyes. She later dreams of being swept out into the ocean after going for a swim, her mother left on the receding shoreline. In waking life, the two of them sit together inside a screened-in porch while rain pours down, “as if lowered into the deep sea.” She wonders what made Virginia Woolf wade into the River Ouse.
Why does the language of water lend itself to the language of grief, despite the myriad ways in which people die on dry land? Robert Creeley said that “form is never more than an extension of content,” or, at least, that’s how it should be. I dreamed once about a shore, of sitting there with a person for whom I grieved and looking out onto a vast ocean, clear water with red pebbles underneath. The formlessness of water is freeing in that it is open to death. Nothing holds. Nelson writes that the grieving inhabit “some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash the bodies up and out of their graves, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.” A great flood turns earth to sea.
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Nelson writes almost ten years later that she hopes The Red Parts exists still in this state of submersion, even if the writer herself does not. In 2005, just as Nelson’s book of poetry about the murder of her Aunt Jane was to be published, DNA evidence was discovered that tied a new man to the crime. The resulting 2007 “autobiography of a trial” is The Red Parts, which has just been rereleased. In her preface to the new edition, Nelson calls the book “a pressurized meditation,” hoping that it will be read “untethered from ‘current events,’ ‘true crime,’ or even ‘memoir.’”
Free from the bounds of genre, but not untethered as in floating—not wispy or in flight. As a text, The Red Parts bears weight, though it moves nimbly; it is expansive, shifting, and sprawling, eddying into small moments of memory and time before flooding outward, straining against the limits of the writer and the writer’s mind. If you’ve read Nelson’s brand of memoir before (though, like she said, she doesn’t prefer the term), this will come as no surprise. The Red Parts rerelease comes on the heels of Nelson’s National Book Critics Circle award for her most recent book The Argonauts, which is even less “tethered” to a recognizable type of nonfiction. Where The Red Parts has discreet chapters, The Argonauts has only paragraphs. It has no subtitle.
Nelson is the one who, in interviews, has quoted Robert Creeley on form when talking about her work. You must witness its formlessness to know its meaning. If a shape has no edges, like Maggie Nelson’s writing, then it’s really all shape; it comes right up close. Which is to say it is filling, warming. You experience it as utterly intact—whole—and yet you can’t see where it ends.
Though Nelson’s other books of prose, The Art of Cruelty and Bluets in particular, are similarly resistant of categorization, and are all autobiographically inflected, The Argonauts and The Red Parts are the most openly personal in that they privilege the events of Nelson’s life before critical or aesthetic exploration (though they employ both of these, too). And as her first work of nonfiction after several books of poetry, The Red Parts can be regarded as a kind of turn.
When first considering The Argonauts and what I’ve come to think of as its radical wholeness, I used to wonder if it could have only been born out of such an experience—one of such wholeness, and ultimately joy. Its project is one of family-making, as Nelson experiences her first pregnancy, and her partner Harry Dodge begins testosterone injections. Nelson wonders how her political queerness will transfigure or be potentially lost in motherhood, but ultimately comes to argue that “there is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” That equivocation is ecstatic, defiant. Moira Donegan titled her review of the book in n+1 nearly perfectly in capturing its vibrancy: “Gay as in Happy.”
D.H. Lawrence proposed that “a truly perfect relationship is one in which each party leaves great tracts unknown in the other.” This is from Studies of Classical American Literature, though, so he’s talking about how to read and how to love, a coalescence of interests that The Argonauts takes up, too. The Argonauts gets its name from the Argo, the mythological ship that Roland Barthes wrote was a metaphor for the subject that says, “I love you”: the words always mean something different, though the utterance says the same. It is our job to use language in such a way that its form, while unchanging, constantly contains something new. So The Argonauts is a vessel that, changing itself piece by piece, arrives intact, safe, at its destination—I would argue that The Red Parts concerns the ocean on which it sails.
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Nelson writes in The Red Parts that, after the publication of one of her books of poetry, her mother sent her a card with Joan Didion’s famous opening line from The White Album on it. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Nelson pinned it on the wall of her East Village apartment, but it rang hollow, a platitude. “I became a poet in part because I didn’t want to tell stories,” she says. “They may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain.” Didion proves to be of a similar mind when Nelson eventually reads her full opening paragraph: “At least for a while,” the sentiment continues in Didion’s book, though it is not included on the card.
Nelson’s book opens in 2004, with the news that Gary Lieterman, a male nurse in Michigan, will be tried for Jane Mixer’s brutal murder more than 30 years before. Her body was found in a cemetery, strangled to death by someone with whom she was getting a ride home from law school. That Lieterman is eventually sentenced to life in prison for the crime, which you think might be the appropriate ending to “the autobiography of a trial,” is by no means the book’s denouement. It closes, dreamlike, on Nelson as a child confronting the dead body of her father lying in a coffin, staying long enough to make sure he isn’t suddenly going to get up.
So The Red Parts is an anti-story, at least in the ways it tries to reckon with narrative’s capacity to “distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize.” “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion” are the words left on her answering machine by Michigan detectives, and which make up Nelson’s opening line. They begin to sound a lot like “We tell ourselves stories” if you read each phrase, one after the other.
The detectives investigating Jane’s case and a CBS crew from a show called 48 Hours Mystery come in and out of Nelson’s writing like an unwanted Greek chorus, reminding her of just how crude the whole enterprise is. The DNA that supposedly matches Lieterman to the crime scene is similarly dubious. “Look, we had a gang-bang case last weekend, and from the DNA we could even tell which order the guys did her in,” Schroeder says in an attempt to reassure Nelson’s mother, Jane’s sister, of its evidentiary power. This sentiment is left hanging as if to emphasize the writer’s revulsion to its implied response, something like, “Oh, good.” The parties for whom justice is the supposed endgame—newspapers, detectives, amateur sleuths on the Internet, the TV producers—seem eerily on the side of their own kind of violence, a patriarchal one. Or, at least, they are infinitely removed from the victim, from Jane.
Nelson is the countercurrent to these vulgarities—the compelling thread of The Red Parts is the writer’s own attempt to emerge from a pervasive awareness of death and violence. As a feminist, she is attuned to issues of embodiment and avoids reducing Jane to pure physical form: a series of garish crime scene photos, her garroted neck. In a moment of querying her own physical vulnerability, Nelson defiantly walks back one night from an evening out and lies down on railroad tracks, undeterred by the darkness and anyone who could be hiding in it. If there is a life preserved in the text, it is not Jane’s, though she might flirt with trying to bring her back—it is Nelson’s. She’s the one that survives.
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The Red Parts includes a reference to one of Angela Carter’s best short stories, “The Bloody Chamber,” in which the pirate Bluebeard does not murder his wife, as the story usually goes. Instead, Bluebeard’s wife shoots Bluebeard in the head.
In another instance, on a trip to the movies, Nelson and her mother almost leave a showing of a film in which Reese Witherspoon is about to be raped and murdered by a serial killer on the I-5 freeway. As things begin to get bad for Reese, she gains the upper hand, and shoots him in the neck. Right before the change, Nelson’s mother leans to her and asks that they stay for another minute: “Maybe something different is about to happen.”
It’s essential to acknowledge that, despite her wish not to be a storyteller, Nelson turned to nonfiction, to autobiography with The Red Parts. In The Argonauts, she worries that “prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose).” But what about when the writing is a gravestone? When the body in question is not a living one, not a ship or a person you’ve fallen in love with or an unborn child, but a ghost? A body that is gone? If The Argonauts celebrates ambiguity as equipment for living, as a means to thrive, The Red Parts is the other side of the same coin, in which language is all we have with which to face death. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” becomes “we tell ourselves stories to survive,” a method of combatting the brutality that sometimes goes with living, too, along with its moments of joy. Carter’s Bluebeard retelling, and Nelson’s mother’s desire to see a movie in which a woman doesn’t die by the hand of a man are examples of this impulse toward storytelling for power. Form is an imposition, form is dishonest—but language is vital as means with which to take ownership, to figure in your own narrative. The tension between these contradictory truths is at the heart of Nelson’s work, its aversion to formal convention but “faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.”
“’Life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink,’ the Buddhists say,” Nelson writes. “I know that I’m not ready and I won’t learn in time. How can I learn if I’m not even trying?” The writing is the trying: this is the promise of The Red Parts, which enabled safe passage of The Argonauts nearly a decade later. We tell ourselves stories in order to die, in order to get ready. You would never begrudge a writer for work that comes out of profound happiness. But it seems at odds with the ethos of that work to regard Nelson as somehow “finished,” which is too easy to do given the success of The Argonauts. “It reads like the culmination of a career,” Donegan writes in “Gay as in Happy,” and I have felt the same. Nelson has written of searching for “intellectual mothers”; imagining her as a similar kind of literary port in which to dock, I have wondered if I could ever be calm, be safe enough to create what she has. So The Red Parts adds welcome insight to understanding a writer who is miraculously able to eschew narrative at the same time embarking on her own mythology. The passage of the Argo cannot exist without the swirling sea.