Alas, I didn’t win this year’s Observer critic’s prize — the rather ostentatiously titled Observer/Anthony Burgess Foundation Prize for Arts Journalism — but I it was an honour to be on the shortlist and I had a wonderful time at last night’s ceremony. Now that the results are out in the open and Felicity James has taken the gong for her review of Nigella Lawson’s At My Table, I’m going to post here my entry: a review of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.
What sort of book would a person write if they took their cues from a bowerbird? In a frenzy of sexual energies clamouring for release, the male bowerbird will attract a mate by cobbling together a “trysting place” from whatever blue objects he can find. He’ll interweave blue twine with blue shoelaces and even blue plastic straws, then he’ll bind them together with blue bangles and blue rubber bands. He’ll stud his love nest with blue decorations, pegs and bottlecaps, gemstones and jewellery, and finally he’ll adorn it all with a prize: a cerulean cigarette lighter, an azure wristwatch, a synthetic five-pound note. The result is at once a mess of incongruous components and a marvel of monomaniacal artistry. Under the pressure of sheer persistence, scattered fragments of blue coalesce into a startling singularity.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets takes the bowerbird as its totem. It’s a slim volume written a decade ago yet only just now arriving in Britain, riding the wake of the surprise success of Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts. But don’t mistake it for a comparatively minor achievement and don’t assume that its slimness makes it slight. Although Bluets is less timely than The Argonauts, less provocative and less fraught with burning issues of gender fluidity and identity politics, it is animated by a set of far more powerful aesthetic ambitions that make it a more complex, more visionary book. Like the bowerbird’s nest, its beauty lies not in the scraps from which it is woven so much as in the discerning, inspired, and slightly demented sensibility that shows itself, in flashes, through the weaving.
Bluets gives voice to a woman’s reflections on her failed relationship with an unfaithful lover. Rather than directly depicting the end of their romance, however, the book comprises 240 numbered paragraphs which each offer a meditation on the colour blue. The narrator calls these paragraphs her “propositions”. They come to her in a “blue rush” as her thoughts roam over all the blue objects she associates with her lover’s presence and touch. Some are as short as a single sentence; some run to several pages in length. Some consist wholly of words attributed to others (Goethe, Mallarmé, Duras) while some detail the narrator’s own experiences and recollections. Crucially, though, hardly one of them arrives as a consequence of the preceding proposition. Most are digressions or non sequiturs by which cause and effect leak out of Bluets, trickling into the spaces between propositions and pulling the book in two directions at once. Paragraph by paragraph, casting causality aside, the narrator emerges as a woman in profound turmoil, one whose entire sense of self has dissolved into a staccato succession of memories and musings. At the same time, these paragraphs accumulate an awful, disquieting power as, with each new proposition, with each recursive probing of blue, with each calm yet dogged pursuit of the countless things it might mean “apart from meaning”, the narrator can’t help but indulge her obsession with the man the colour represents. Subtly, then, and with consummate skill, Bluets counterposes frenetic fragmentation with prose so restrained that it’s almost anaesthetised, painting a portrait of a woman trapped in both the numbing haze of depression and the throes of acute distress.
That’s praise, but it’s insufficient, because Bluets has more sophisticated conceptual aims. The novel also imprisons its narrator in a labyrinth of punishing self-reflexivity, looping back on itself as she unfurls her propositions. Even as she strives to purge her heart of a poisonous love, the book she ends up writing leads her into a tangle of double-binds which confront her with a series of terrible truths about herself.
Most terribly, the narrator realises, she remains in love with her duplicitous partner, enamoured of the false face he showed her, in spite of knowing full well that she fell for an illusion. “This is dysfunction talking,” she admits, “this is the disease talking,” and yet she is still possessed of — or possessed by — her powerful feelings for an absent, abusive man.
Then, far from wanting to relinquish these feelings, wanting instead to keep them alive, she writes about them in order to give them a permanent form, even though she suspects that her writing will hasten their loss. By putting them into words, she worries, she might “displace” or “embalm” the cherished things she writes about, producing something like “an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve”.
Then again, along the way, her insights into the colour blue reveal that her worries are unfounded. Writing about her wayward lover can’t diminish her feelings for him because those feelings were never tethered to the man she now knows him to be. When her thoughts drift towards Plato’s philosophy, she recalls that none of her beloved blue objects actually possesses the colour blue; each one only conjures up an impression of blue when her gaze alights upon it. So too, she reasons, her lingering love might be an ideal as purely abstract as the colour, wholly unhinged from the man who inspires it. When she looks back over her life with that man, when she dwells on his body of flesh and blood and the deceitful soul that won her affections, she can no more harness soul to body than she can harness blue itself to lapis lazuli or the sparkle in a pair of eyes. Her own inner being is, perversely, the source of the feelings that scourge her.
That a novel so small and opaque could be so tragic, so unconventionally poignant, makes Bluets exceptionally powerful. That its pathos is almost entirely suggestive, a glow that seeps through the cracks in a patchwork of emotional debris, makes it even more potent, even more stirring. It beguiles with all the crazed splendour of the bowerbird’s nest and it offers rewards the same way, giving earthly shape and substance to a howl for a soulmate from a heart that beats unlike any other.