Koestenbaum may be reaching to combine the mad genius of Pale Fire with the florid outlaw sexuality of Jean Genet, but his...

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MOIRA ORFEI IN AIGUES-MORTES

From poet and cultural critic Koestenbaum (The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, 1993, etc.), a first novel made up of the lunatic rantings of ailing concert pianist Theo Mangrove.

It’s quite a load for any man to bear. The doomed narrator is saddled with the prospect of tragic artistic failure, an Oedipal fixation on his mother, Alma (whose international fame as a pianist eclipses his own), a passing sexual interest in his sister Tanaquil (whose dream is “to be a madam in an important bordello”), and a polysexual perversity that requires him to relieve 20 erections daily, a feat he’s aided in by street hustlers, students and teachers (of all ages and both sexes) and also, astonishingly, by his wife (“Unsurprisingly,” he tells us, “I present HIV symptoms,” yet, surprisingly, both he and his generous supply of partners have a consistently cavalier disregard for protection.) Naturally, there’s a great deal of description of sexual entrances and exits of all sorts, much of it coated in an oddly nonsensical lyricism (“After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest”). Koestenbaum is best known for his booklength rhapsodies on iconic women (Jackie Onassis, Maria Callas, etc.) and the gay men who love them. Thus, Theo, too, has an obsession with an icon: the Italian circus artist Moira Orfei, with whom he is determined to collaborate on a “comeback” recital to be given in the small French town of Aigues-Mortes. The novel, written in the form of “notebooks” addressed to Theo’s mother, includes letters to Moira and what may or may not be her own replies, written in the same inscrutable diction as a semiotics student after a three-day ecstasy binge: “My needs and destiny exceed yours. I command more land, more syntax.”

Koestenbaum may be reaching to combine the mad genius of Pale Fire with the florid outlaw sexuality of Jean Genet, but his narrator has neither the wit of the former nor the nuance of the latter.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-932360-53-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Soft Skull Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2004

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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