“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).
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.
In what is probably the strangest and most delightful book of the year, Wayne Koestenbaum is an essayist and artist who comments on everything from butterflies to Susan Sontag, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackie O with sharp script but little open sense of direction--beyond a wildly contagious curiosity.
As fun a book of criticism as you’re likely to find . . . Few critics are so playful, so irreverent, and so refreshing.
Tasting a word, inhaling a disagreement, melting syntax--these are skills you can learn from Wayne. He has mastered the combination of category and kind, and can instantly widen a particulate filter . . . Maybe you don’t know what you’re most interested in, not yet. Curiosity is the match under Koestenbaum’s year-round yule log. Words as yeasty, generative seeds. Fulsome tunnels. Perfervid bun traps. Let’s go!
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.
Koestenbaum’s essays actively analyze and move like investigations, encouraging readers to follow along like Watson to Holmes . . . The essays are engaging, and it becomes an adventure to follow Koestenbaum’s playful and occasionally raunchy train of thought.
Koestenbaum’s writing, like his interests, is diffuse and gymnastic. Cutting a silhouette around white space with his longtime preoccupations of art, desire, form, famous people dead and alive, the work in Figure It Out embodies Lukács’s definition of the essay itself as ’an autonomous and integral giving-of-form to an autonomous and complete life.’ It is in the non-pause that Koestenbaum draws a portrait of a consciousness, free and at its most utterly alive.
Whether in field-defining works of queer theory or hypnotic rushes of ’trance writing, ’ Koestenbaum’s polymorphous approach allies giddy curiosity with technical precision. Published by Soft Skull Press, his latest essay collection Figure It Out demonstrates all that is urgent and addictive about Koestenbaum’s writing with essays on futility, celebrity, porn, squeegees and the virtues of disorientation.
These essays are a celebration of a hunch pursued, a line taken of course, or perhaps, a line that’s not even a line at all . . . There’s a feeling that, for Koestenbaum, this is as fun as it is serious, and neither of those things invalidate the other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.