Koestenbaum (Camp Marmalade), a poet and novelist, presents 26 nonfiction pieces, most previously published, in this inventive but self-absorbed collection. Spiraling in structure and dizzyingly varied in theme, the essays are peppered with reveries and fantasies, suggesting a kind of ramble through Koestenbaum’s consciousness. He muses about artists of all sorts—writers, painters, singers, composers, sculptors, photographers, and filmmakers—and his eye may be caught by Picasso or Giacometti, or his ear by the recordings of Vladimir Horowitz or the compositions of Iannis Xenakis. He ponders how Emily Dickinson elides the boundaries between prose and poetry, and takes on “Punctuation” with a nod to, among others, Hannah Arendt, whose writing displays the “weight of parenthetical information, subordinate yet urgent.” “Occasionally,” Koestenbaum opines, “I intend my writing to be comic,” particularly in his faux advice columns, including the title essay and “18 Lunchtime Assignments.” Themes of sexuality and gender are pervasive, typically in eye-catching declarations —“I want the liberty to use the word penis as a mutating signifier”—which some may find provocative, others tiresome. There’s fun and games and erudition throughout, but one has to be a card-carrying Koestenbaum fan to get into the full spirit of this assemblage. (May)
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
A PopMatters Best Book of the Year
"Whatever his subjectfavorites include porn, punctuation and the poetry of Frank O’Harathe goal is always to jigger logic and language free of its moorings . . . Ditch your inner chaperone, he implores. Breach the cordon sanitaire in your mind . . . His great and singular appeal is this fealty to his own desire and imagination . . . He crushes on evasion and ambiguity, but his own prose has always been distinguished by its tautness and agility . . . There is a feeling of watching a writer so allergic to cliché now interrogating his own moves, annotating his own clichés with diligent, affectionate exasperation. Figuring it out, after all, is a life sentence." ––Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"A book of essays that audit a series of extremely indulgent, largely beautiful, mostly dissociated objects of fascination . . . Koestenbaum has installed himself in a pantheon of loopily scrupulous authors like Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne and Maggie Nelsonwriters who take their knuckles around the heart of a passing subject and tenderly squeeze them of their juices." ––Mina Tavokali, The Washington Post
"In what is probably the strangest and most delightful book of the year, Wayne Koestenbaum is an essayist and artist who comments on everything from butterflies to Susan Sontag, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackie O with sharp script but little open sense of direction––beyond a wildly contagious curiosity." ––Los Angeles Times
"Pervy and diverting." –New York magazine's Approval Matrix "Highbrow/Brilliant"
"As fun a book of criticism as you’re likely to find . . . Few critics are so playful, so irreverent, and so refreshing." ––Colin Groundwater, GQ
"Tasting a word, inhaling a disagreement, melting syntaxthese are skills you can learn from Wayne. He has mastered the combination of category and kind, and can instantly widen a particulate filter . . . Maybe you don’t know what you’re most interested in, not yet. Curiosity is the match under Koestenbaum’s year-round yule log. Words as yeasty, generative seeds. Fulsome tunnels. Perfervid bun traps. Let’s go!" ––Sasha Frere-Jones, Bookforum
"Every passage is a carnival of confident poses and wry transgression, blending scholarly diction and voluptuary seediness . . . Koestenbaum’s work often seems so unchained, so free, that it feels like it was written joyfully, without a trace of strain." ––Zachary Fine, Art in America
"Koestenbaum’s essays actively analyze and move like investigations, encouraging readers to follow along like Watson to Holmes . . . The essays are engaging, and it becomes an adventure to follow Koestenbaum’s playful and occasionally raunchy train of thought." ––Alex Tunney, Lambda Literary
"Koestenbaum’s writing, like his interests, is diffuse and gymnastic. Cutting a silhouette around white space with his longtime preoccupations of art, desire, form, famous people dead and alive, the work in Figure It Out embodies Lukács’s definition of the essay itself as 'an autonomous and integral giving-of-form to an autonomous and complete life.' It is in the non-pause that Koestenbaum draws a portrait of a consciousness, free and at its most utterly alive." ––Tracy O'Neill, BOMB, Editor's Choice
"Whether in field-defining works of queer theory or hypnotic rushes of 'trance writing,' Koestenbaum’s polymorphous approach allies giddy curiosity with technical precision. Published by Soft Skull Press, his latest essay collection Figure It Out demonstrates all that is urgent and addictive about Koestenbaum’s writing with essays on futility, celebrity, porn, squeegees and the virtues of disorientation." ––Guy Mackinnon-Little, TANK magazine
"These essays are a celebration of a hunch pursued, a line taken of course, or perhaps, a line that’s not even a line at all . . . There’s a feeling that, for Koestenbaum, this is as fun as it is serious, and neither of those things invalidate the other." ––Lucy Holt, Cleveland Review of Books
"There's a specific kind of derangement that I'm after these days, and it can reliably be found in the work of Wayne Koestenbaum; it's a delirious openness, a willingness to go to those heights rarely reachedand then keep going. Such is the case with his new collection of essays, which all hinge on the idea of the unexpected 'collision,' and then become perfectly unhinged from there, leading to meditations on everything from punctuation to poetic blow jobs to the word 'penis.' A pure delight." ––Refinery29
"Regardless of genre or medium or even subject, to know this avant-garde artist is to love himfor the intensity of his studies, the nuance of his self-reflections, the exactitude of his articulations." ––Megan Volpert, PopMatters
"Whenever I need to hit the reset button on my expectations, Koestenbaum is my touchstone . . . The quality of Koestenbaum’s attention and his ability to delight and surprise is unmatched by any writers I have read. His senses of play and inquiry are often my guiding lights, and Figure It Out offers great benchmarks and springboards for anybody feeling a little rigid about or stuck in a certain way of thinking." ––Megan Volpert, The Rumpus
"Spiraling in structure and dizzyingly varied in theme, the essays are peppered with reveries and fantasies, suggesting a kind of ramble through Koestenbaum’s consciousness . . . There’s fun and games and erudition throughout." ––Publishers Weekly
"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." ––Kirkus Reviews
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 Believer, Tin 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.