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.