Book Review

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

im blue abadadee abadie

“I guess that’s why they call it the bluets”

When you hear the word blue, what do you think of? The rolling sea? The gorgeous sky over a panoramic vista? That Elton John song I’ve referenced above? The boyband Duncan James used to be in that bombed at Eurovision a few years ago?1

I’ve never read any Maggie Nelson before, which is definitely an oversight given how much many of the writers and real life people I like the most rate her work.

Bluets is the story of a life, viewed in 240 short propositions, like a philosophical text. It is rich in reference and imagery and it is vaulted in intellectual scope, but unlike the smug clever-clever that mires much intelligent writing, Nelson’s work is both deeply human and irrevocably emotional. There is a vulnerability on show, in spite of the smarts, that makes Bluets a touching and engaging read, when ordinarily something that flaunts this much book-learning would turn me right off. There is no arrogance, no self-aggrandisement, to Nelson’s writing: her prose is beautiful and intelligent without being dehumanised; it offers the mind of an academic, the tone of a poet and the emotional investment of a close friend.

Bluets is about a colour, about a lifelong interest in a colour, in blue. Nelson explores the cultural history of blue, how blue dyes have been created, the cultural implications of blue as word and image and metaphor, but whilst doing this she dives into her own life, particularly into her recent break up with a lover she refers to as “the prince of blue”. There is a sadness at work in the text, but alongside this regret and disappointment there is an optimism and an intense intellectual passion that recompenses, almost, for the loss of love.

Reading Bluets is educational, and not just of detail, of fact. Nelson evokes travel and love and lust and fun, and she evokes the intensity of the urge to research. Bluets is also very funny, for example Nelson repeatedly mentions speaking about writing a book about blue in job interviews for many years before she actually sits down and writes one. This is a messy post, I know, it’s been written in stolen fifteen minute bursts across most of a week.

Bluets is a book about the blue of flowers, the blue of stone, the blue of clothing, the blue of life. It’s a book that is difficult to write about as it is so full of numerous strands, creating, in a short 100 pages, a picture of most of a life, a sweeping detail formed from what might otherwise seem to be mere snippets of biographical detail, of researched information, of records of thought process and a richly textual engagement with tone.

I read the whole thing in one sitting, and that sitting was about a week ago from when I’m writing this last paragraph, a week in which I’ve had some pretty stressful experiences AS WELL AS some very very very exciting ones. So, right, my memory is foggy about the book. Every week I have feels like it lasts sooo long because sooo many things happen to me, there is so much movement and change. I fucking love it, though, and I loved sitting, sober, in my bed one evening with my dog on my feet and relaxing into a beautiful book. I read and I cried and I laughed and I learned; I sipped peppermint tea and engaged with a powerful voice writing powerful prose and, to be frank, one can’t really aim for much better than that.

No poem this time, have too much to do.

1. Blue is a boyband I have a strange relationship with. In either 2009 or 2010 or 2011 or 2012 I saw a musical at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that starred Anthony Costa, from Blue (then out of shape and 30ish) playing a teenage heartthrob in an American High School being terrorised by a serial killer who murdered women whenever they were splashed with water (cue lots of “jokes” about female arousal). The show was sponsored by Ann Summers – who provided all of the costumes – and it was either directed or produced by someone who was either a big name producer or director (the opposite to what he or she was doing) in TV, so the show had a far better cast than it had any justification for given the terrible book, lyrics and music. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen on stage, but simultaneously one of the absolute best experiences I’ve ever had in an auditorium (I have never played with my dog, performed poetry or made love in an auditorium). It was SO BAD it was raucously, unforgivably, entertaining, and Anthony Costa glared at me and my friend David, many, many times due to our laughter ringing out through the empty 400-seater theatre. I think it was called Bloodbath, but I don’t want to Google it to check. ANYWAY, as time went on I saw Simon Webbe and Duncan James perform in musicals, too (Sister Act and Legally Blonde respectively (don’t worry, I didn’t pay)), and have been patiently waiting for years to see Lee Ryan live on a stage. I thought I was about to do it in 2016 when I bought a ticket to see a show that turned out to have Lee from STEPS in. You can imagine my frustration. Even though I know Blue’s songs aren’t great, they continue to be a source of occasional interest for me. A friend of mine worked on a film with Duncan once and he described the “quiet drink” the cast and crew went for after that day’s work (nb: not a wrap party) as being pushed by Duncan into a night wilder than the wildest parties most people ever go to in their lives. And, for Duncan, that’s just [allegedly] his average Tuesday. This is alleged, btw, my friend might have been lying, but look, I’ve given no details of anything so it’s not libellous. Also, I once made a short film about Anthony Costa. Watch that now: 


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2 comments on “Bluets by Maggie Nelson

  1. Scott, I’m wondering how it compares with Han Kang’s “The White Book”?

    Liked by 1 person

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