I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead. This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007. Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.
The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue. It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’ Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’. Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards. Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’
‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’ The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.
Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning. She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister. In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’. She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’
Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’. The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse. When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too. Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’ She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone. Strangling Jane. I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful. I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’
The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family. She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once. The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner. Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.