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Reading and living are not the same thing…or are they? No matter how hard anyone tries, capturing reality is nearly unattainable. Even with works labeled as “non-fiction”, it seems that the writing world and this world are two separate entities. Maggie Nelson on the other hand seems to have found a way to emulate reality in her own writing. Winner of the 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, Maggie Nelson has forged a new version of non-fiction that reduces the separation between what is personal and what is intellectual.
She takes pressing issues and incorporates them into her lived experiences, as everyone seems to do every day. Anything anyone does, anything that ever happens to anyone, is all just a part of this larger context of society and its social procedures. Nelson reflects how anyone would go through living their own reality, taking each personal experience and viewing them in the bigger context, and actually has found a way to put it in words.
The best part however is that this is not just demonstrated in her content, but also in her use of structure and form.
In the writing world, the addition of new standards have reduced what it meant to be a writer. Certain ones had their own niches and with those in order to be successful one had to continue with them. Whether specific content, form or writing style overall if it works run with it. What makes Nelson successful is her ability to articulate the many versions of herself. She “…picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs – the white male patriarchy scab, the smug female thinker scab – the academic scab…” and “…knows exactly what kind of language, at this moment, [and] what kind of views, are important…” (Als, “Immediate”).
Nelson connects because she understands the significance of making a piece of writing so personal to the point where its relatability is not surface level. Understanding through the viewpoint of reality, the way the world and everyone’s individual world actually exist, and not just through a writing lens does the reader get properly transported. She makes use of the particular and understands its universality.
This concept is evident within four of Nelson’s prominent works Jane: A Murder, The Red Parts: A Memoir, and excerpts from Bluets and The Art of Cruelty. She uses the different elements of writing in order to infuse her ideology from actual lines of content, to the relation between writing form and content to what her content is explicitly about. From a story about the philosophical meditation of the color blue to the murder trial of Nelson’s aunt and the aftermath of it to an excerpt whose subject embraces the overall idea of writing with a reality scope, all of these works connect to one another through their ultimate culmination of what reality is. To start off, Bluets is one of the more “stranger” works to interpret.
This specific excerpt from Bluets thrives on raw emotion and a body’s needs and desires. Nelson provides a philosophical meditation on the color blue by bringing it into the larger perspective of what is socially acceptable and what is not. However, is this concept visible from first glance? Is discussing how “The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene,” and jumping into how there is “…little blue food in nature…” because “…in the wild [blue] tends to mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries), (Nelson, 659) and finally how she “…went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck”…” (Nelson, 660) a man called the prince of blue an obvious representation about how Nelson’s personal obsession reveals social criticism? Well, maybe not “obvious”, but it does become evident.
She does it through this crucial line, “But what if the prince of blue’s unbutton pants are the divine…” (Nelson, 661). She asks a crucial question that delves into the complex concept known as reality. What is normal and what is not? A personal trait, some would find unorthodox and plain unusual and she reveals the underlying issue of how we as people decided that “normal” is something with which we can rank people on and have a criterion on. Anyone reading this work from Nelson will most likely agree that an infatuation with a color up to the point where her love life is influenced is strange, but with it she exposes a larger social problem that judges on how society decides what should be acceptable and what should not. However, knowing that this is the underlying truth beyond this narrative is not the important part, what is important is how one comes to this realization.
How does one take this apparently random prose and evaluate it for what it truly is the question. The key is to look at the work she has written and read as not as someone else’s story but with the context of realism in mind. One must look at her writings and remember how one approaches one’s own life. Within this essay, Nelson takes the aspect of reality where everyone lives for themselves and for their individualities and that disagreements on what is “right” and what is “not” are troubles that everyone has to go through. She demonstrates this because she writes for herself and writes in a way that makes sense for herself.
Within the Los Angeles Times, Nelson has indicated that when she won a MacArthur Genius Grant, it was strange because she was “…told in this big way, like, whatever [she has] been doing, [she’s] on the right track…” and for her it was very heartening. It was “…a change for her conceptually to think that [her] work might be wanted by somebody, no matter what it was” (Kellog, “Maggie Nelson”). Do not read Nelson’s works and expect that just because she is published, she is understandable in ways similar to previous authors. She relates to the masses not through common thought but through everyone’s individuality. Therefore she uses topics that represent individuality at its finest, meaning her own. However this does not just delve into themes, it is also reflected in her form as well. As she states, “You’ve just got to do what each book demands” and did just that in this next novel.
Jane: A Murder is the spectral story of how Maggie Nelson’s aunt was murdered as a first year law student at the University of Michigan. Her aunt’s death was the third in a series of seven brutal rape-murders in the area. It is a narrative that is suffused with the long shadow her murder cast over Nelson’s family and her own psyche. She writes this using a collage of poetry, prose, crime reports, newspaper stories, monologues as well as diary entries that belonged to Jane. This novel should not be only judge as just an unorthodox form of writing about a family murder. It should be looked at as an analysis of the moment. She writes how she literally went through everything, with every thought she had at every time something happened. The chaos in her form of writing emphasizes how one would experience an event like this in reality.
From a reflective perspective of the first photos Nelson only “…saw while growing up [were] hung in [her] parent’s bedroom,” and “How strange [Jane’s] face seems now enlarged on this grainy screen, now that [Jane] will always be only twenty-three” (Nelson, 35), to Jane’s history where she “…was on the pill…and how neither family would have accepted the union of Gentile and Jew…” (Nelson, 82), to the funeral and open casket where Nelson’s “…mother insisted on having an open casket, to show everyone Jane was still whole” (Nelson, 108) in order to represent how she was more than just someone who died to the Restlawn Cemetery where Nelson’s “…mother used to come here and sit for hours, [and] tell her sister about all that had happened, about her two children” (Nelson, 207).
To even stating that “…elephants can recognize the bones of a dead loved one when they stumble upon them in the wild…” and later on the exact same page state how Jane “…died on March 20, 1969, sometime between midnight and 2 A.M.” (Nelson, 28), also content wise does Nelson the reality of going through an event such as this. The constant back and forth of a million random thought processes all occurring at once is something familiar when comprehending a situation such as this; too many questions and feelings and the desire to be answered all at once.
Nelson’s situation may be a tad non-relatable for her aunt’s death also involved a police investigation, however she goes through the ropes that encompass the reality of a loved one passing away. Nelson uses multiple writing forms as a way to visually represent the disorder, confusion and disarray one would go through if in this situation. Read this novel as if this was the reader’s own experience, his or her own reality. While she is not focusing on the reality of what individuality means within this work as in Bluets, she guides her attention towards a different version of the many that reality contains, one that demonstrates that going through a traumatic event is not one that can be described just through a singular perspective of sadness.
While Jane: A Murder discusses everything in “real time”, The Red Parts: A Memoir reflects on the aftermath. While still discussing the trial of the suspected murderer of her aunt, this novel surprisingly opens Nelson’s exploration of sexual violence and media spectacle. A documentarian feel to the story, from an initial glance it appears that the story “lacks” the main point. A story about a murder, but not really? From a first glimpse, Googling Gary Leiterman and coming across an article from the Detroit News about how “The Detroit papers are sadly lacking in their coverage of women’s sports…” and how “From strictly a business point of view, if you wanted to increase your readership, this might be a good place to start” (Nelson, 138) lacks a connection to what the story is technically “supposed” to be about. However, “Sitting alone in a sea of young men hollering, Did you ever see what a .44 can do to a woman’s pussy,” (Nelson, 62) and Nelson’s unappreciation of it leads into a bigger picture.
For The Red Parts: A Memoir, a death based on sexual violence, Nelson focuses on how her own different versions of reality are affected by the media coverage of it. She describes interviews with detectives investigating Jane’s case and a CBS crew from a show called 48 Hours Mystery and how crude the enterprise is. Detective Schroeder in an effort to reassure Nelson’s mother, Jane’s sister, for some reason believed telling her that he “…had a gang-bang case last weekend, and from the DNA [they] could even tell which order the guys did her in…” (Nelson, 51) was a great way of comfort. A source of entertainment for everyone else, but a desire for a proper explanation and ending from the deceased’s loved ones. In this novel, the reality is a much harsher one. The world does not crumble apart along with those experiencing the death of a loved one. She writes in perspective where everyone’s opinions are included and not just one person’s experience. Only in the writing world can someone isolate one’s own opinion and make it the only one applicable to the situation at hand; Nelson wanted to break that safety net.
Similar to the excerpt from Bluets, there is also one crucial line that guides the entire essence of Nelson’s work. “Actually, Your Honor, I admit it. I can’t tell the difference between representation and reality anymore. I’m very sorry” (Nelson, 95). Writing for Nelson is not so much a representation but a reality itself. Using not only content but form and prose to perfectly emulate the emotions, the thoughts processes and the analytical aspect through which life is achieved. Reality is not linear, it contains many components that affect one another and relate to each other in ways not noticed before.
Also from a feminist reality, Nelson tries to avoid reducing Jane to a mere collection of body parts even if nonsexual. Avoiding garish scene crime photos that describe Jane with just purely containing a “…entry wound in [her] lower left skull,” and “Her hair, thick and red with blood” (Nelson, 72). Nelson understands that not everyone goes through death in similar ways and that perspectives, even the ones most unexpected, take a role. However, as revealed before, she does not want to find or rather make up a general idea that everyone can relate to, but rather have everyone relate on a scale where she reveals things about herself no writer has done before. Context for the reader here is to take his or her own world and apply every belief and ideal. In this case, dealing with death is not just something to deal with one-sidedly, but rather something that leads to connections to all interpretations.
With the final entry, The Art of Cruelty, this is a story that leads into a world away from the pandemonium surrounding her aunt’s death. A work of criticism, it explores how violence and cruelty have found expression in visual art. Just as how in The Red Parts: A Memoir Nelson focuses on media involvement in her aunt’s case and its obsession with using violence as a form of entertainment, this piece of work focuses on the portrayal of humans in disconcerting ways. What interests her is the full-fledged assault on the barriers between art and life that much 20th century art works so hard to perform. She focuses on how this is demonstrated by British painted Francis Bacon and American photographers Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag.
With this work, Nelson brings out a truth about reality that everyone must encounter with at some point in their lives, directly or indirectly; violence. Susan Sontag photographs involve those by which she assumes are defined by horrific pain including drag queens, dykes, sex workers, sideshow performers, interracial couples, etc. She accuses Arbus of not performing ethical journalism nor does Arbus care whether she did or did not. It is with this part, however; that it reveals the truth to what Nelson means when she writes.
There is one portion of the excerpt which focuses on Susan Sontag’s criticism of Diane Arbus’s work. She ultimately critiques Arbus for being “too cruel”. However no matter what Arbus means to portray in her works, it is not so much her ability to capture something “correctly”, but rather about her “…capacity to reveal how that “something” changes per frame – how many conflicting truths there might be within a singular image, moment, or person” (Nelson, 664). Nelson specifically appreciates how Arbus as an artist is one who “…can stare down “what the world really looks like”…” (Nelson, 664) and with this Nelson takes what the world really looks like to her, every single part.
Sontag ultimately critically analyzes Arbus’s work for “concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate – but without the compassionate purpose that such as project is expected to serve” (Nelson, 663). However, Nelson reveals a truth about this statement. Rather than Arbus being too cruel, “…the problem lies more in Sontag’s standards than in Arbus’s alleged cruelty” (Nelson, 663). Everything is all relative. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” as mentioned by Emerson. With this, it is evident why Nelson writes the way she writes.
Nelson is an essayist who, as mentioned before, believes in writing for truly herself. She does not partake in a type of writing that seems to work for the public and using it as a kind of specialty to distinguish herself from everyone else. Her “rejected thoughts” or every time she would question herself as a writer, she would decide that “She has no time for fake populism…” and “…she’s an unabashed cultural elitist…” “Nelson employs herself as a registering instrument, constantly taking her aesthetic temperature” (Nelson, “Immediate”). It is imperative to understand that Nelson writes “in the moment” and to take this attitude when examining her works.
Within this, Nelson reveals two representatives of reality. She does not only reveal her true passion of writing the world as the actual world but also a version that is realized but not looked at in a positive light. Reality is also about the acceptance of the unacceptable. In the writing world, people can hide whatever they wish, writing in a realm where it is possible for something to never exist. While it cannot be said that pain and suffering have never been written about before Nelson, she does state more point blank in this extract that “…humans will always suffer, no matter how just their circumstances, and that to argue otherwise is to deny a fundamental aspect of the human condition”. Reality is typically accepted in portions, Nelson just happens to discuss one of the more displeasurable types.
While “Reality” is a single title, it means a lot of different things. Reality encompasses a numerous amount of elements that collectively define the distinct label. Nelson’s pieces work in a similar fashion. From Bluets to Jane: A Murder to The Red Parts: A Memoir to finally The Art of Cruelty, they all jointly comprise, not completely, but some of what reality is about. With the reality of discouragement from individuality, to the reality of dealing with a traumatic death in the moment, to the reality of dealing with the aftermath and realizing that the world does not only revolve around only one anymore to finally dealing with the truth about reality, all of these are what make Nelson a fantastic yet confusing author. One needs to think in the moment in order to reach the depth that Nelson’s works involve; an author who brings a new level of realism to the writing world.
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