Joining the rank of the loopily expansive

Mina Tavakoli

THE WASHINGTON POST – Ah, yes: The bark of another Wayne Koestenbaum collection. Our great, roving, leash-less dog of modern essay-writing – constantly sniffing at the groin of an idea, taking in its rich musks, savouring them with two wide nostrils – bounds up the slope, yet again, for a book of essays that audit a series of extremely indulgent, largely beautiful, mostly dissociated objects of fascination.

Through a lifetime’s worth of snacky, tangy titles (The Milk of Inquiry, Camp Marmalade et al.) Koestenbaum has installed himself in a pantheon of loopily scrupulous authors like Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne and Maggie Nelson – writers who take their knuckles around the heart of a passing subject and, in a digression of between two sentences and 500 pages, tenderly squeeze them of their juices. These are men and women shameless in their use of adjectives, remorseless in their acts of introspection, great users of unorthodox metaphor and, as Koestenbaum might put it, insistent on “mystifying anything (they) can get (their) hands on”.

A few words deep into Figure It Out, we acknowledge that Koestenbaum’s hands are very large. Wayne’s world is made up of vast surfaces and grippy textures – one in which people, sensations and observations clump to form a multi-disciplined and multi-organismed clot. There are pages devoted to artist Robert Rauschenberg’s shoes, hair and squeegee; there is an entire chapter reserved for the notion of the line. Boyhood memories of staring at a bee exit onto a few words about the Instagram page of Omar Sharif Jr; an exegesis on Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s wife wanders off into Koestenbaum’s first colonoscopy. When we come across mention of his obsession with “digression’s hospitable embrace”, he is, for once, speaking in understatement.

In his usual tradition of abundance and generosity, several chapters – like the title – are written entirely in the second person imperative, giving us assignments built like little mental calisthenics to exercise our own Koestenbaumian muscles of decadent thinking. “Write down everything you’ve done today,” goes an easy one – No 15 in a sequence titled 18 Lunchtime Assignments – “starting from the moment you woke up. Be quick. Let the last line or sentence of your poem include the name of an artwork about which you feel ambivalent”.

Understandably, your mileage may vary on all of this. It can be, sometimes, terminally and specifically precious – smilingly glib with a distinctive fatty gristle that lives in the meat of a lot of solipsistic writing.

Like all reflective objects though, the act of essaying has a two-ness about it. Montaigne motioned that “the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking”. Sontag, of course counterpointing, noted that “its most obvious trait is assertiveness of one kind or another”. Wither Koestenbaum?

A zippy 1967 film by Jacques Tati, Playtime, has a scene that serves as a clean précis for Figure It Out’s credo. In the shot in question, a man takes a dog for a walk late at night. He passes a pair of well-lit, mid-century apartments that feature two families separated by a wall. The pleasure unfolds near-subliminally: There are secret synchronicities between the two parties, sexy sleights of hand, quiet micro-zones of pleasure, but each is missable without a watchful eye. “I need to hide my argument,” equivocates Koestenbaum, “or hide from myself its very existence, because random details restore my birthright optimism”. Meanwhile, the man overlooks the scene entirely, but doggy watches, yips in approval and is tugged away.