“Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision? Always accident, concussion, bodies butting together . . . By collision I also mean metaphor and metonymy: operations of slide and slip and transfuse.”
In his new nonfiction collection, poet, artist, critic, novelist, and performer Wayne Koestenbaum enacts twenty-six ecstatic collisions between his mind and the world. A subway passenger’s leather bracelet prompts musings on the German word for “stranger”; Montaigne leads to the memory of a fourth-grade friend’s stinky feet. Wayne dreams about a handjob from John Ashbery, swims next to Nicole Kidman, reclaims Robert Rauschenberg’s squeegee, and apotheosizes Marguerite Duras as a destroyer of sentences. He directly proposes assignments to readers: “Buy a one-dollar cactus, and start anthropomorphizing it. Call it Sabrina.” “Describe an ungenerous or unkind act you have committed.” “Find in every orgasm an encyclopedic richness . . . Reimagine doing the laundry as having an orgasm, and reinterpret orgasm as not a tiny experience, temporally limited, occurring in a single human body, but as an experience that somehow touches on all of human history.” Figure It Out is both a guidebook for, and the embodiment of, the practices of pleasure, attentiveness, art, and play.
’Imagine, then, an ecology of language, ’ Wayne Koestenbaum writes. He creates one of magical abundance here. Instincts and insights flourish, as do ideas and sensations. He speculates, he cogitates, he provokes and delights. He’s a scamp, he’s a seer, and he’s a virtuoso.
Spiraling in structure and dizzyingly varied in theme, the essays are peppered with reveries and fantasies, suggesting a kind of ramble through Koestenbaum’s consciousness . . . There’s fun and games and erudition throughout.
Gorgeous is one of Wayne Koestenbaum’s favoured adjectives . . . It would be an apt word, too, for Koestenbaum’s own gorged and engorged prose, which is one of the best rejoinders I know to the idea that flamboyant style and a rigorous ethics or politics cannot live on the same page . . . Koestenbaum is an exuberant critic, enraptured poet, intoxicated historian . . . Of course it is one thing, as a writer, to aspire to or even practice impure forms and an ecstatic style--quite another to take seriously the ethical field onto which they open. In the end, for all the wildly admirable qualities of his writing, I think the essential contribution of Koestenbaum’s diverse project is to reassert what Walter Benjamin called ’the fullness of concentrated positivity’ (a phrase of which Sontag approved) in the face of the fleeting attractions of polemic, dispute and snark. There is assuredly a politics to this, an urge to keep all possibilities in play, and to keep play alive as a possibility, in a time of anxiety and retrenchment. I can hardly think of a writer who is so exacting about his own enthusiasms, so diligent in his pursuit of joy, so principled in the defence of pleasure. Gorgeous, yes, but absolving too.
Regardless of genre or medium or even subject, to know this avant-garde artist is to love him--for the intensity of his studies, the nuance of his self-reflections, the exactitude of his articulations.
raise for Circus; or, Moira Orfei in Aigues Mortes
"If Debussy and Robert Walser had collaborated on an opera, it would sound like this.
This Soft Skull reissue of Wayne Koestenbaum’s 2004 debut novel (now with an introduction by Rachel Kushner!) is the perfect book for summer: It’s fever-hot, lurid to the extreme, and filled with the kind of lunatic linguistic acrobatics that leave you gasping for air.
[Koestenbaum] rarely writes fiction, but when he does, it is exquisitely unhinged, a little more so than the rest of his more typically aphoristic prose . . . Narrative continuity and formal completion aren’t exactly his bedfellows, which is why Circus, a novel, stands out among the rest of his oeuvre . . . Composed as a series of notebooks authored by the narrator, Circus logs the highs and lows of Theo Mangrove’s small-town life and histrionic musical aspirations. His accounts are detailed, raw, and sexually explicit; as Theo’s HIV positive body gradually deteriorates, he ruminates obsessively over a classical repertoire that he may or may not perform.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s poetry is as well revered as his cult-classic work of cultural criticism The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. But his novels are the place to find his brilliant mind on fire in a prose style that is as challenging as it is uproarious. His recently reissued novel, Circus: or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, is a rich treat of incantatory prose focusing on fame, decadence, classical music and an Italian circus star.
The gem of a book might have lan-guished - not unlike the nar-ra-tor in his tiny upstate New York town--had Soft Skull Press decid-ed not to reis-sue it.
Written in the style of a surreal fever dream, Wayne Koestenbaum’s first novel records in brilliant poetic vernacular the swan song of Theo Mangrove, a dissipated concert pianist and debauched sexual adventurer obsessed with Italian circus star Moira Orfei. Elucidated across twenty-five notebooks, Theo’s desire to perform with Orfei for a final entertainment extravaganza in the southern French village of Aigues-Mortes (the "town of dead water") is both dazzlingly seductive and undisguisedly unhinged . . . Koestenbaum, a cultural critic and poet, experiments with the deranged aesthetics of literary artifice practiced by such luminary predecessors as Baudelaire, Nerval, Artaud, Rimbaud, and Huysmans to tantalizing effect. The story of Koestenbaum’s freaks of nature is delivered in willfully, at times hilariously debauched deadpan and makes for irresistibly twisted magic. How could a reader not delight in the fiercely rendered hallucination of it all?
The mad genius of Pale Fire with the florid outlaw sexuality of Jean Genet
A mordant, exquisite ode to ’the authentic and paralyzing distance between us.’ Insignificance is transformed into magnificence, inspiration is disfiguring, and desire is desecration: rapture becomes indistinguishable from rapture. I especially love how the book takes the stargazing of The Queen’s Throat and Jackie Under Skin and poeticizes it, dramatizes it, darkens it, mortalizes it. A deep aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, Wayne Koestenbaum’s first novel is one of my absolutely favorite works of his (than which, in my lexicon, there’s scarcely higher praise).
Wayne Koestenbaum, a writer of mature and accountable linguistic genius, has . . . taken up the fabulist form and mastered it absolutely . . . in every way a match for its most illustrious precedent, the hallucination recorded in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Here is the authentic magic from the wellspring of the magical: delusion transformed into revelation. A triumph.
raise for Wayne Koestenbaum
"Wayne Koestenbaum is one of the most original and relentlessly obsessed cultural spies writing today. His alarmingly focused attention to detail goes beyond lunacy into hilarious and brilliant clarity.
I’ll go wherever putto, poet, painter and--little did you know--lounge crooner and ivory tinkler Wayne Koestenbaum wants to take me.
[Wayne Koestenbaum] is a figure of this time, but he also is a writer and thinker for all time. His career streaks above this genre-obsessed, professionalized-writer moment, and corresponds instead to the history of the polymath, the public intellectual, the drifter, the infinite conversationalist.
Like an impossible love child from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, Wayne Koestenbaum inherited all their stylistic wonder and laser-beam smarts, but with the added point-blank jolt of sex.
[T]here’s always a sense in Koestenbaum’s writing that indulgence and risk are countered by extreme care at the level of the line or sentence. . . . If you haven’t noticed by now: Here is one of the most flirtatious writers around.
What Koestenbaum has achieved, perhaps better than any other contemporary poet, is linguistic fecundity combined with hyper-fastidiousness. Words seem to fall out of his mind and through his pen at breakneck speed without undermining the deeper aesthetic experience. . . The psyche is dangerous terrain, and Koestenbaum is, among all his other accolades, an exceptionally brave explorer.
For a quarter century, since the publication of the seminal queer theory text The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum has been one of our leading gay cultural critics. Alongside his parallel careers in poetry and the visual arts, Koestenbaum has been responsible for some of the most penetrating and haunting literature on queer identity, subcultures, and fixations.
Koestenbaum’s reflexivity is uncanny and gathers pathos from the very task of writing, which for him is tantamount to assembling a self. As Foucault put it, being gay ’is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to try to define and develop a way of life.’
Wayne’s work--his poems, his essays, his criticism--obliterates any vestigial divide we might hold on to between play and thought. It revels in and broadcasts the risks and joys (the risky joys and joyful risks) inherent in both.
[Wayne Koestenbaum’s] writing is pungent, replete, intoxicating, infectious. I read it and I want to make it my own, to steal his precision and lyricism and immaculate means of evoking the spectacularly specific.
This scholar of excess is off the cuff, over the top, and always on the money!
Whether referencing La Bohème, Donald Winnicott, bondage gear, Brooke Shields, or a haunting dream of massaging a baby, Koestenbaum’s work entices in all its sui generis, subconscious musing.