Figure It Out: Essays
by Wayne Koestenbaum
Soft Skull Press, US$16.95 pb, 288 pp
The cultural critic, poet, and musician Wayne Koestenbaum is pooped. He is ready for his writing to assume its ‘corpse pose’, to expire and become obsolete. Over the course of a thirty-year writing career marked by a lively enthusiasm for culture and celebrity, the author has often shown his attraction to acts of disappearance – his admiration, for example, of artists who retire relatively young (e.g. Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, or poets Arthur Rimbaud and pre-comeback George Oppen). Perhaps more compelling to Koestenbaum, though, are those cultural figures who retire into careers; those who make work of indolence. In this group, there are Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond and Walt Whitman loafing in New York. There are Jackie Onassis and Andy Warhol, whose iconic yet ephemeral life-as-art sensibilities are the subjects of his star-hagiographies Jackie Under My Skin (1995) and Andy Warhol (2001). And, probably the author’s nearest literary precursors, there are the poet–art critics Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery – all various Bartlebys in Manhattan whose prodigious output and cultural appetites evince a cruisy idleness. In these figures, Koestenbaum savours the coupling of productivity and lethargy, writing and not-writing, being and nothingness.