Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill.
I fell in love with Maggie Nelson reading The Red Parts, a lyrical memoir/true crime/family story with other genre-bending topics jumbled together. I recommend it unhesitatingly.
I also liked Jane: A Murder, her book of poetry/essays that preceded Red Parts but dealt similarly with her aunt’s life and death. I love her beautiful writing, her enviable smarts, her ability to weave together a million different topics and have it all make some glorious sense like it was meant to come together this way in the first place. Suffice to say I picked up Bluets with high expectations.
It consists of 240 mini-essays styled like lyric poetry, each a meditation on something sometimes faintly, impressionistically, connected with the color blue and its connotations. Knowing Nelson’s style, that simple topic would branch into countless unexpected but thoughtful, emotional, and literarily rich directions. Not to mention it has stellar Goodreads ratings, which seems significant – if a book has thousands of ratings and is still well over 4 stars there, my interest is especially piqued.
That’s all to preface that I’m firmly in the minority, but I was disappointed, even annoyed, with this book. It’s a melding of literary, poetic, philosophical, reflective musings, interspersed by some totally out of place, out of the – blue, shall I say – lines of explicit sexual analogies or descriptions.
It clusters around certain themes besides meditations on blue. One is a confessional, painful, letter-style address to a lost but still-mourned love. Another is the story of a close friend who survived a terrible accident, leaving her body broken and in severe pain. Nelson helps to care for her. Grief, depression, heartbreak and pains both physical and mental are explored with some linkage, overtly tangible or intellectual, to blue. It’s padded with philosophical musings and quotes from artists and thinkers and musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday and Emmylou Harris, and their artistic connections to blue.
As for the random explosions of sex and sexual body parts, it reminded me of what I would’ve thought was edgy and artsy and in-your-face when I was in college. I’m not uncomfortable reading it or against it for any reason, but I do think some things, and some body parts, are better left to the imagination. And being coarse in the guise of honesty or laying it all bare has been done to infinity and doesn’t shock, titillate, or interest me. The only reason it stood out was because an explicit line would appear alongside a meandering, philosophical thought – the sexual interjection overly descriptive with a coarseness that feels out of place in a text that has such a polished, but sometimes ostentatious, literary tone.
Some of the odes to blue were eye-rollingly melodramatic. And the use of “fucking” as a verb was so frequent that especially in such a short book, the repetition is exhausting. There are a lot of thematic elements that might’ve worked, like they harmoniously did in The Red Parts, especially considering Nelson’s singular way with words, but just didn’t.
Despite a lot of negatives in my view, sometimes anecdotes impressively held so much detail in a concise telling. I liked this one:
I hated that time and I hated that apartment and soon after I painted everything yellow I moved out. I looked at dozens of apartments and when I entered the hallway of the one I moved into next I knew I could live there because it was cheap and the hallway was baby blue. My friends all told me it smelled as bad there as it did in the last one but I found a heads-up penny on the threshold and anyway I don’t live there anymore.
And there are some interesting factoids sprinkled throughout: I learned that a side effect of Viagra is that vision might become tinged with blue.
“I just don’t feel like you’re trying hard enough,” one friend says to me. How can I tell her that not trying has become the whole point, the whole plan?
That is to say: I have been trying to go limp in the face of my heartache, as another friend says he does in the face of his anxiety. Think of it as an act of civil disobedience, he says. Let the police peel you up.
I do kind of love that image. Bluets has its moments. I think younger me would’ve appreciated it more. As it is, it felt melodramatic, pretentious without meaning to be, and disjointed. It’s beloved though; I’m interested in hearing why from others who read it differently.
by Maggie Nelson
published October 1, 2009 by Wave Books