Wayne Koestenbaum’s prose can be picked out of a lineup more quickly than that of almost any living American writer. Other contemporary stylists have easily identifiable signatures, but few of them are as relentless. There are no quiet lines to offset the exuberant ones in his work. Across Koestenbaum’s essays, criticism, and fiction, it’s rare to find a single paragraph that doesn’t contain some combination of the following: the imperative mood, a memory or dream, a fantasy or desire (not infrequently debauched), the name of a star or starlet or other glamorous proper noun, a jarring comparison or compound (i.e. “cum-bucket consciousness”), a description of an odor or texture, a literary citation, a self-reflexive gesture. Every passage is a carnival of confident poses and wry transgression, blending scholarly diction and voluptuary seediness.
Koestenbaum’s newest collection, Figure It Out, includes twenty-six essays, most of them previously published. There are explorations of particular artists and writers, including Adrienne Rich and Hervé Guibert; roaming studies of individual objects, like a new pair of glasses; and meditations on concepts such as line and celebrity. Among the titles of the essays: “The Porn Punctum,” “Of Smells,” “Punctuation,” “Do You Want to Touch It?,” and “Eighteen Lunchtime Assignments.” Though the texts are called essays, they are just as much dream logs, diary entries, lists, prompts, fiction, and criticism.
In “Corpse Pose,” one of the highlights of Figure It Out, the opening paragraph proceeds from a yoga class to his plan to write an essay about “how literature should start enjoying its own corpse mode, its oft-foretold senescence,” which is then interrupted by the death of his stepfather. From there, the essay veers into the notes he keeps while painting (such as “Change color of lozenge behind butt”), his origins as a reader, stray memories of family life, passages on Walter Benjamin, reflections on a 1968 Kodak Super 8 movie camera displayed in his hallway, items on the shelf next to the camera, assignments of “asemic writing” for the reader, and reflections on the essay he is not writing, is failing to write.
His prose has a tendency to look over its own shoulder, catching itself in the mirror. He likes to narrate his regrets, urges, and tics while he’s writing (“I have a problem knowing when to pause”; “I’ll wipe out all feeling from my voice, in the hope of luring you to fall in love with me”), but he also often explains the work of others in a way that reflects back on his own. In one essay, for instance, he points to the “unstoppered perversity and brilliant heedlessness” of the poet Ronaldo V. Wilson. In another, he describes how French writer Hervé Guibert favored “not the lyric or the essay but the autofiction, the fragmentary self-articulation, casual as a snapshot,” adding that reading Guibert involves “questioning straightened notions of what constitutes a polished piece of writing, or a life’s work, or an autobiography, or a sexuality, or a successful venture—and learning, instead, to appreciate the cadences of catastrophe, of self-excavating improvisation, and of unknowingness.” This is a better description of Koestenbaum’s writing—and the experience of reading his writing—than any critic will manage. It belongs to the kind of two-toned criticism that has become his signature: to read the self, always, through the object of study.
As in most of Koestenbaum’s work, the writings in Figure It Out are fragmented and friable. Many of the essays are diced up into stand-alone paragraphs, often with an equally choppy ride between sentences. In “Of Smells,” which borrows its title from a 1580 essay by Montaigne, he describes his method as “collision”—“accident, concussion, bodies butting together.” One paragraph begins: “Montaigne mentions incense. Barbara, the first girl I’d heard confess that she loved masturbating, invited me to a Buddhist temple in Berkeley, but my parents didn’t approve.” First we get Montaigne, then we get Barbara. It’s very Koestenbaum to take off from a French philosophe and then to alight on a memory involving masturbation.
Koestenbaum’s work often seems so unchained, so free, that it feels like it was written joyfully, without a trace of strain. There is a striking passage in “Corpse Pose” where he corrects this perception and almost reinforces it in the same stroke:
“Does my relation to literature seem unencumbered? Do I seem a serene-tempered representative of literature’s pleasures, rather than its ordeals, curfews, and solitary confinements? Where did you get the idea that anyone’s relation to literature could come without fleshly exactions? When I write, I’m on the verge of physically exploding. Hands sweating, I’m hunched over, poised to attack or defend, like a raptor or a cowering dog. Language compels me to sweat, slaver, tremble, squeeze. My body is a bloody washcloth I’m systematically wringing. Sentences demand aviation: adrenaline and anxiety provide horsepower for my freakish, impossible flight. Caught in a schizogenic double bind, I use language to flee language.”
Even though Koestenbaum constantly returns to his past and his body—its hungers, delights, and wounds—the tone has nothing of memoir or confession in it. Every divulgence seems highly controlled, like a studied free fall. The prose is wild and sensuous, but also meticulously crafted; note the alliteration (sweat, slaver, squeeze; body, bloody), the pairing of dry technical language and fleshier colloquial words (systemically/wringing, horsepower/freakish, schizogenic/flee). It’s precisely this fusion of the intimate and the analytic that allows his oversharing to read like undersharing, his divulgences like inquiries. In a fragment from the essay “Beauty Parlor at Hotel Dada,” he writes: “Dream: in a dark room I put John Ashbery’s hand (not willing but passive) on my cock and made him give me a hand job.” In the context of his writing, not even this disclosure seems mildly embarrassing or excessively personal. It belongs to the bounty of proper names, daily incident, play, and perversity that we learn to expect from his work.
Koestenbaum recently sold his papers to the Beinecke Library at Yale—entering the archive and finding a seat in literary history—and he was announced, in March, as the recipient of an award for exceptional literary achievement from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Figure It Out has arrived in the wake of this recognition, and it’s an occasion for feeling encouraged about our distinguished academies and institutions. We can only hope they’ll go on making room for dreamt Ashberian hand jobs, lexical disobedience, and lively experiment.
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