“If Debussy and Robert Walser had collaborated on an opera, it would sound like this.”–John Ashbery“The mad genius of Pale Fire with the florid outlaw sexuality of Jean Genet”–Kirkus Reviews For five years, concert pianist Theo Mangrove has been living at his family’s home in East Kill, New York, recovering from a nervous breakdown that derailed his career, and attempting to relieve his relentless polysexual appetite in the company of male hustlers, random strangers, music students, his aunt, and occasionally his wife. As he prepares for a comeback recital in Aigues-Mortes, a walled medieval town in southern France, he becomes obsessed with the idea that the Italian circus star Moira Orfei must join him there to perform alongside him. Extravagantly (and tragicomically) describing his hallucinatory plans in a series of twenty-five notebooks, he assembles an incantatory meditation on performance, failure, fame, decay, and delusion. A new edition of a “dazzlingly seductive” fever dream written in “brilliant poetic vernacular” (Bookforum) by a beloved poet and cultural critic, now with an introduction by Rachel Kushner.
[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.
Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like ’After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;’ an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
You probably know Wayne Koestenbaum for his incisive nonfiction or his surreal poetry, but that’s not all he’s done. This new edition of Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes: A Novel brings his novel back into print, complete with introduction by Rachel Kushner. It’s about a reclusive pianist planning his comeback in the most surreal manner possible--a welcome reminder of Koestenbaum’s breadth as an author.
Poet, writer, and otherwise diversely talented cultural mainstay Wayne Koestenbaum does not shy away from anything, and we are all the better for it . . . His novel Circus, which was originally published in 2004, was re-released this year by Soft Skull Press . . . Koestenbaum guides us through the most uncomfortable of subjects with his renowned humor and inventiveness of language, and the brilliant Rachel Kushner provides the introduction to the new edition.
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.
If Debussy and Robert Walser had collaborated on an opera, it would sound like this.
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 Jacke 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.
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
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.