The Short Version: A series of essays, autobiographical in that they address both Koestenbaum’s life but also the art & ephemera that crossed his path. This is a collection about a time and about how that time impacts the present – about cultural heavyweights of literature, art, and film but also about the creation of those same things.
The Review: I can’t think of a collection of essays I’ve read before that was both so insular and so universal. Often, essay collections have only the loosest of themes – or, if they have a theme, they’re all very much pointed towards that theme and it’s something like “space” or “babies” or whatever. But Koestenbaum’s collection is about something far more nebulous (and arguably far more interesting, when addressed this well): why we write. Or, more accurately, why he writes.
As a result, the collection is ultimately both terrifically engaging and immensely frustrating. On the one hand, Koestenbaum’s writing is electric. He writes with an academic’s skill set but the tone of a really smart older friend (which is not meant offensively – it’s just that nobody 25 could write with a voice quite like this). He’ll not only name-drop but idea-drop folks like Heidegger before turning on a dime to talk about cruising in his late teens. And it all feels connected, it all feels as though it’s of the same mind. This allows him to rhapsodize about Lana Turner and about Roberto Bolaño in nearly the same breath – and you just buy it, the strange menagerie of influence on this singular mind.
On the other hand, his uniqueness – a high-wire act of sorts – gets frustrating. His essay “Cary Grant Nude” was, for me, a turning point in this book (and I should note that instead of reading these straight through, I tried to take them a few at a time spread over the space of a week or so). Suddenly, I wasn’t being engaged so entirely but rather was hemming and hawing a bit. There was something bordering on smart-aleck in the tone and I started to think of those kids I went to college with who were just insufferable in their elevated intelligences (and if I’m complaining, you gotta know that they were rough). It was as though I had been overloaded on the tone and the intelligence.
Part of this may come from the fact that I am (admittedly somewhat ashamedly) only passingly familiar with so many of the cultural touchstones that Koestenbaum is mulling over. Do I know all of their names? Yes. But can I think of a Lana Turner film / a Frank O’Hara poem off the top of my head? Nope. Am I at least passingly familiar with the major moments of gay history and talking points of queer theory? Damn right. But am I familiar enough to hold my own in a conversation about them? Eeesh. And so I found myself beginning to cherry-pick which essays I would read – and I found that the ones that inevitably drew me in the most were the ones that were, at their most reduced, about craft.
Koestenbaum, as I said earlier, does something really rather extraordinary here: he dissects while the patient, as it were, is alive on the table. Several of these essays, even ones that aren’t necessarily about writing (“Advice to the Young” and “Notes on Affinity” are the first two examples to spring to mind), take an idea and you can see the thought processes playing out before you. It feels organic, it feels like it’s happening in the moment – but there’s also a sense, a background sense, that the essays have been constructed this way. That we’re meant to see the thought process but it is a process that has been tuned and tweaked in order to be presented in the best light. And while that level of artifice can often be aggravating, it isn’t so much that in this collection as it is entrancing. A brilliant man opening up his own brain and looking, very carefully, at not only what makes it tick but then how that thing makes it tick – how could you look away?
Rating: 4 out of 5. Despite the fact that it feels overlong and that several essays did not hold my attention, there’s a wealth of great work here. More than any individual piece, it is the sense of self-examination that I take away from this collection – a sense that I, as a reader and a writer, must be able to consciously understand the way that I synthesize my cultural influences. So often we just let them affect us – but it can not only show us something about ourselves but it can, I daresay, make us better consumers of culture to know exactly what it is (or to even try to understand, even if we fail) that makes us love it so much.