Wednesday, August 05, 2015

NEW! Review of Wayne Koestenbaum

My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

Reviewed by Becky Peterson

Poet and scholar Wayne Koestenbaum gives hope to those of us who, committed to an intellectual life of wandering and obsessively pursuing one idea after the next, are often dismissed as dilettantes. Koestenbaum defends us, as well as the marginal, the rejected, the invisible, and the incoherent. My 1980s & Other Essays displays Koestenbaum’s meandering interests in essays that range from the traditional to the experimental, and from the brainy to the corporeal, and which are consistently both eye-opening and entertaining.
Despite the title essay, My 1980s spans a range of time periods and subject matter. The 1980s are important in their formative role in Koestenbaum’s consciousness as a writer: “when AIDS hit in the early 1980s I decided not to waste my maybe-very-short life writing what I did not want to write or obeying rules that in the grand scheme of things (death) didn’t exist.” Koestenbaum’s distinctive style, which mixes autobiographical and theoretical analysis, is at the foreground of this collection. The text moves among the worlds of film, literature, and art, devoting attention to a variety of individuals, including Susan Sontag, Cary Grant, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and taking multiple creative and theoretical risks that result in a rich assemblage. 

“Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner” merges memoir and pop culture analysis, exploring the intimacy between fan and celebrity. Koestenbaum muses, I have long wondered how people whose private lives are public knowledge experience mundane daily consciousness unfolding. What is it like to eat breakfast when millions of people know your intimate affairs? Is the experience of eating breakfast altered? Using a diary form, Koestenbaum captures immediate emotions and realizations, and at the same time reflects astutely on the movement of his own mind. He instructs: “Find Cheryl Crane’s autobiography, Detour, and devour it.” I obeyed, and was happy I did.

In addition to offering up provocative reading list recommendations, Koestenbaum enacts a philosophy of writing that, as he explains, “[chooses] blur over clarity.” A mix of multi-disciplinary musings, Barthes-influenced analysis of detail, and what he calls “self-ethnography,” Koestenbaum creates, as he says about Ashbery’s poems, “an instruction manual on how to spend time fruitfully by wasting it, by growing distracted, blurry, foggy, garrulous, horny, contrapuntal.” Poetry, painting, film, and biography are guides to living as well as expressions of lives, and the “opaque surface” is worth our close attention.  Koestenbaum mentions a parallel between the poetics of opaque language and queer studies—“the point of queer poetry may also be to make murky, to distort”—and I would have liked to have heard more about this intriguing connection.

On the level of the sentence, Koestenbaum revitalizes simile and metaphor by pulling together unlikely elements. For example, in “Hart Crane’s Gorgeousness,” he compares Hart Crane and Stella Dallas in a meditation on poetry and the outsider. Studying Warhol’s serial portraits, he describes the experience of looking as “a tsunami of hyperesthesia, like what I imagine Roman Polanski felt when he first had sex with Sharon Tate, or vice versa.” In an essay on painter Forrest Bess, Koestenbaum speaks of Bess’s “comic sense,” “his off-kilter, snake-oil-vending taste for ceremonies-in-a-void, like a Saharan five-and-dime remake of Alla Nazimova’s silent Salomé, but with a spartan décor—or like a shell-shocked yet carnivalesque Paul Klee who’d studied tantra.” These similes, which build on each other with increasing surprise and energy, help mark this as a stand-out collection, worthy of examination for its art as well as its theory.

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