FIGURE IT OUT by Wayne Koestenbaum


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Writer, musician, and cultural critic Koestenbaum (English, French, and Comparative Literature/CUNY Graduate Center; Camp Marmalade, 2018, etc.) offers up another batch of personal essays published in a variety of venues.

These forays into the author’s extravagant imagination, published in Bookforum, the BelieverTin House, and elsewhere, cover both new and familiar territory: art, film, autobiography, sex, celebrity (“I’m a lifelong student of star culture”), French author Hervé Guibert, and Picasso’s lines (“perfect, impossible”). In “No More Tasks,” Koestenbaum writes that the “writer’s obligation in the age of X is to play with words and keep playing with them.” In the rambling “Beauty Parlor at Hotel Dada,” a long sequence of largely unconnected thoughts, the author hints at his methodology: “Individual sentences may be choppy and sometimes repetitive, but through accumulation, the whole acquires a strange momentum and inevitability—even amid the deadness.” Koestenbaum also chronicles “My Brief Apprenticeship with John Barth,” an enjoyable, admiring assessment of how Barth the teacher influenced and inspired Koestenbaum’s writing. “Composed in ‘crots,’ a rare term I learned from Barth,” this essay and others “leap from crot to crot, at liberty; connections arise through juxtaposition, not through direct statement or overt linkage.” The author offers sly ruminations on punctuation and style with sidebar examples from a wide array of artists and writers. For example, Marguerite Duras’ sentences “tear themselves apart before they can achieve assembly.” In “Riding the Escalator With Eve,” he implores, “please everyone start reading Tendencies,” by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The author argues that Adrienne Rich “should have won a Nobel.” She had “an ear for the music that politics makes in the body.” 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.

A little Koestenbaum goes a long way—best taken in small bites.

Pub Date: May 5th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-59376-595-8
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2020


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