Figure It Out


by Wayne Koestenbaum

List Price: $16.95
Paperback | 5.5 x 8.2, 288 pages | ISBN 9781593765958

“Whatever his subject–favorites include porn, punctuation and the poetry of Frank O’Hara–the goal is always to jigger logic and language free of its moorings . . . His great and singular appeal is this fealty to his own desire and imagination . . . Figuring it out, after all, is a life sentence.” –Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“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.”

Through a collection of intimate reflections (on art, punctuation, eyeglasses, color, dreams, celebrity, corpses, porn, and translation) and “assignments” that encourage pleasure, attentiveness, and acts of playful making, 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 from “one of the most original and relentlessly obsessed cultural spies writing today” (John Waters).

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.

Publishers Weekly

This kind of prose could be overly chaotic in the hands of a lesser writer, but Koestenbaum has a knack for mostly keeping things together with sincerity, surprises, and wit.

Kirkus Reviews

A book of essays that audit a series of extremely indulgent, largely beautiful, mostly dissociated objects of fascination . . . Koestenbaum has installed himself in a pantheon of loopily scrupulous authors like Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne and Maggie Nelson--writers who take their knuckles around the heart of a passing subject and tenderly squeeze them of their juices.

—Mina Tavokali, The Washington Post

Wayne Koestenbaum’s nonfiction blends deftly-written prose with precise observations about life and art. Figure It Out is his latest collection of nonfiction--totaling 26 pieces covering the breadth of his interests. It’s a welcome summation of a wide-ranging writer’s work.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn

As fun a book of criticism as you’re likely to find . . . Few critics are so playful, so irreverent, and so refreshing.

—Colin Groundwater, GQ

There’s a specific kind of derangement that I’m after these days, and it can reliably be found in the work of Wayne Koestenbaum; it’s a delirious openness, a willingness to go to those heights rarely reached--and then keep going. Such is the case with his new collection of essays, which all hinge on the idea of the unexpected ’collision, ’ and then become perfectly unhinged from there, leading to meditations on everything from punctuation to poetic blow jobs to the word ’penis.’ A pure delight.

Refinery29, One of the Best New Books to Read This Month

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.

—Megan Volpert, PopMatters

No matter the focus, Koestenbaum proceeds with an agile, sidling insouciance . . . It is his unswerving commitment to his own taste and instinct that allows him so much insight into the works of others who are equally committed to their affinities and practices. What he beautifully observes about poet Adrienne Rich might just as well be said of him: ’Rich was a natural historian with an ear for the music that politics makes in the body.’


Every passage is a carnival of confident poses and wry transgression, blending scholarly diction and voluptuary seediness . . . Koestenbaum’s work often seems so unchained, so free, that it feels like it was written joyfully, without a trace of strain.

—Zachary Fine, Art in America

Whenever I need to hit the reset button on my expectations, Koestenbaum is my touchstone . . . The quality of Koestenbaum’s attention and his ability to delight and surprise is unmatched by any writers I have read. His senses of play and inquiry are often my guiding lights, and Figure It Out offers great benchmarks and springboards for anybody feeling a little rigid about or stuck in a certain way of thinking.

—Megan Volpert, The Rumpus

’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.

—Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland

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