Foreign Bodies

Lily Davenport

April 2017

There aren’t many surface similarities between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling—the former blends critical theory and personal history to chronicle Nelson’s marriage to Harry Dodge, her gender-fluid partner, while the latter is a speculative-fiction take on vampire lore. However, they complement one another in startling ways. Both books upend traditional familial structures, and explore the visceral strangeness of the human body. Neither presents a manual for living beyond the usual or the binary, but each celebrates the conjunction of what American society terms deviant with what it calls domestic.

To that end, some of the most arresting moments in The Argonauts involve strangers who assume that Nelson and Dodge are a heterosexual, cisgendered couple, and that their two children share DNA as well as a home and parents. Nelson identifies as queer, and Dodge describes himself as “a butch on T;” one child is his, from a previous relationship, and the other is Nelson’s, conceived with the aid of a sperm donor. Of a celebratory dinner out, Nelson writes: “You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. Our waiter cheerfully tells us about his family, expresses delight in ours.” Later, Nelson recalls Dodge’s interacting with a cashier: “[He] paused for a long moment, then said, ‘This is her card, right?’—pointing at me. I almost felt sorry for him, he was so desperate to normalize the moment.”

Nelson and Dodge aren’t demeaning the people who make such assumptions, and neither do they attempt to conceal the ways in which their relationship diverges from our culture’s default settings. Their family is, in a sense, radical in its external normativity. It’s also rooted in Nelson and Dodge’s shared understanding of bodies as continually in flux, though haunted by their previous shapes or roles—as Nelson’s before pregnancy, or Dodge’s before a double mastectomy and hormone therapy. In The Argonauts, bodies are at once frighteningly distant and fundamental to our identity.

Nelson’s textual bodies may be alienating at times, but Butler’s are actually alien. Shori, Fledgling’s protagonist, is doubly so, as she’s a vampire who’s been genetically engineered to allow her to endure sunlight. Butler’s vampires don’t “turn” humans, but their saliva contains chemicals that, with prolonged exposure, cause the people they feed on to become addicted to their bites. Each vampire partners with several human symbiotes, in what’s essentially a biologically-enforced group marriage. Fledgling highlights the interdependencies that fuel all of our relationships, the social and emotional symbiosis with one another that both traps and supports us.

It’s a discomfiting idea, since few of us want to reckon with the dark side of such connections: our own potential to manipulate and abuse others. Despite Butler’s lively and generally positive interest, the vampire-commune in which Shori and her symbiotes eventually find sanctuary is no utopia. Even so, their family speaks to Nelson’s comment that “nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it. . . no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” Butler grounds her novel in the minutiae of domestic life: burnt toast, spats over sleeping arrangements. Like Nelson and Dodge, her characters are at once ordinary and avant-garde, simultaneously inhabiting and subverting social convention.

Ultimately, Fledgling and The Argonauts posit that normativity is an illusion. We’re all deviant—and domestic—in some regard, even if we’re not queer polyamorous vampires, or actively endeavoring to live outside binary notions of gender. But that doesn’t mean we’re ideal beings, or that we should pat ourselves on the back every time we remember to make space for someone whose transgressions differ from ours, thinking that’s all the effort we have to put forth to behave better. Bodies are certainly helpful, but just as often they’re the scariest things around. They let us down or betray us in myriad, horrible variations on illness and injury. Relationships are just as necessary as bodies, but they often prove coercive or otherwise damaging; interdependency, as Shori’s symbiotes know well, can hurt. There aren’t easy answers, and being human is not, most of the time, a feel-good proposition. That Nelson and Butler both communicate this idea without giving in to despair speaks to their skill. Reading them won’t fix things for the rest of us, but it’s a start.

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