The color blue is an interesting color. It’s weird! Deep, meaningful, etc. Maggie Nelson is one of the people who is interested by the color blue. “Why blue?” She wonders in Bluets, helpfully. “People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond.” You’ll be forgiven for assuming this book was written in order to come up with just such a response.
But Bluets is not about the color blue, it is about Maggie Nelson, who wrote it after a bad breakup (on the specifics of which she is perplexingly reticent). In the aftermath, Nelson, in a nod to the shelter-building of bowerbirds, began collecting blue things: “Over the years I have amassed countless blue stones, blue shards of glass, blue marbles, trampled blue photographs peeled off sidewalks, pieces of blue rubble from broken buildings…” In a book that seeks to both explain the color blue’s appeal to the author and its especial emotional resonance more broadly, perhaps these objects might be worth dwelling on. But details in Bluets are not the point. “I can’t remember where most of them came from,” Nelson says of her objects, and instead turns to musings about Warhol’s Blue Movie (a film, she reassures us, that she never attempted to actually watch).
It is these diversions into historical and cultural touchstones where Nelson seems convinced she will discover whatever truth of blue she seeks. She is stymied at every turn — on Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who invented a “cyanometer” to measure the blue of the heavens, Nelson offers up a rather prosaic quote (“’We beheld with admiration the azure color of the sky. Its intensity at the zenith appeared to correspond to 41º on the cyanometer.’”) and, predictably, her gloss on it falls flat: “This latter sentence brings me great pleasure, but really it takes us no further — either into knowledge, or into beauty.”
The same could be said for Nelson’s book. It is a very pleasant thing, but potentially illuminating windows into her subject are forever being shuttered by her insistence on gooey writerly pleasure over the advancement of an argument. “Joni Mitchell,” she tells us, “customarily chose her pigments for their intensity rather than their durability — a choice that, as many painters know, can in time bring one’s paintings into a sorry state of decay.” Interesting! But Nelson can’t help herself, and ends the passage with the drearily rhetorical: “Is writing spared this phenomenon?” Everywhere, here, crisp, substantial anecdotes are shackled to metaphors that suggest meaning but offer none.
It’s with these overreaches, these attempts to juice every ounce of meaning from the varied and often very intriguing sources Nelson cites, where the book often verges into the ludicrous. “You might even say it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering,” Nelson writes early on. “This is how we ‘get around’ in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.” This is a nonsensical claim, one that is only justified by the warm tingle of frisson it might arouse in a reader who’s only half paying attention.
To write a book about blue that was really about being blue is understandable (if not unavoidable), and Bluets is at its best when it lingers on the particulars of Nelson’s life — her friend who has suffered a terrible accident that leaves her “piercing, pale blue” eyes as “the only part of her body that could move” or an old lover in Connecticut who slept in a bunkbed and “placed precious orchids on wobbly stands near the bottom of the ladder so that often one would knock the flowers over upon one’s descent.” But these glimpses are brief and impressionistic (an explanation of the nature of her friend’s accident, for example, never comes), and the closest we get to the ex who has set Nelson’s blue period in motion are memories of fucking. “For six hours straight” on an afternoon when he was on his way to a “seaside town, a town of much blue” to meet another woman, or at the Chelsea Hotel (naturally), about which Nelson writes: “It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.”
Who knows what she’s talking about, but it sure sounds artistic, huh? There are plenty of readers who privilege feeling over sense, and they should not be begrudged their love of this book. But is there anything here that offers a deeper feeling of blue than that elicited by Yves Klein (whose work Nelson can find nothing to say about aside from “too much”) or Robert Johnson (who, along with every other iconic Blues musician, goes bizarrely unacknowledged here)? “I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it,” Nelson confesses. Surely, her enjoyment has not diminished since publishing Bluets.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Seattle: Wave, 2009.