Of Susan Sontag, Debbie Harry, Anna Moffo and Wayne's World

Delving Deep into the Universe of Essayist Wayne Koestenbaum

Fountains of Wayne: In his essays, Wayne Koestenbaum displays enthusiasm and erudition that recall both Pauline Kael and Nick Hornby.
Andrea Bellu-Ad Hoc Vox
Fountains of Wayne: In his essays, Wayne Koestenbaum displays enthusiasm and erudition that recall both Pauline Kael and Nick Hornby.

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published August 20, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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● My 1980s & Other Essays
By Wayne Koestenbaum
FSG Originals, 336 pages, $16

Why would you read a collection of essays by a critic who writes mostly about artists (of many kinds — filmmakers, painters, poets, singers, etc.) about whom you do not, with a few exceptions, know anything? Maybe because the critic teaches you something about the art form, even if you don’t know the artist; that is why, for example, I read Joan Acocella’s dance reviews. Maybe for the critic’s caustic put-downs (as in the case of Acocella, say, or H.L. Mencken), or for his contagious enthusiasm, like Nick Hornby’s in his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer. I actually go out and buy books he raves about. Or because the critic, in writing small pieces, has built a cumulative history of an art form, as Pauline Kael did of film in the 1970s and ’80s.

But then there are the critics whom one reads simply to dwell in their presence, because they think about art in a way — whether eccentric, odd, quirky, smart, counterintuitive, offensive, stupid or ridiculous — that makes one’s own perspective seem, by contrast, a bit tired and unsurprising. That is the principal reason to read the essays of Wayne Koestenbaum, poet, professor, general man of letters and son of a Jewish refugee who settled with his wife in a pre-Apple Silicon Valley. He calls his new book “My 1980s & Other Essays,” but even if he did not, we would be right to call the book a collection of essays, for although a good majority of them are occasioned by works of art, and in many cases were written as assigned reviews, they are really all about him.

One might retort that all reviews are, to a great extent, about the reviewer, and that’s true, but there is a difference between what Koestenbaum is doing and what, say, Hornby does. Both men write with a strong voice and with great charm and personality — but Hornby always foregrounds the book under review. He is answering to a very high literary calling: telling people how to spend their limited budget for the arts. Koestenbaum will go on for many thousands of words about a movie, painting or poem and never get around to telling the reader much about it, aside from whether it makes Koestenbaum giddy. If I had encountered some of these reviews in their original form, in journals from which a spendthrift reader expected some advice on what art to buy and consume, I might have felt cheated. For these are not reviews. As essays, however, they are powerful, if contorted and fish-eyed, glimpses into a very odd mind.

Okay, so what is the content of these essays, besides Koestenbaum himself? With apologies to all his other subjects, Koestenbaum can be reduced to his four great debts: Susan Sontag, James Schuyler, Anna Moffo and Debbie Harry.

Sontag for her liberties with the essay form: Many of these essays are, like Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” epigrammatic, or aphoristic; they are collections of knowing sentences or paragraphs, separated by spaces or dingbats, that somehow pleasantly cohere, or don’t.

Schuyler, because, boy, does Koestenbaum love James Schuyler, the late, great, gay poet who lived in Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea and died in 1991. Schuyler calls forth some of Koestenbaum’s most persuasive, unguarded writing, like “Epitaph on Twenty-third Street,” a moving, extended thank-you and eulogy; Schuyler also inspires some of Koestenbaum’s most tersely, economically stated wisdom, like this line from that eulogy, a line that ironically is in praise of archness even as its earnestness resists it: “An aesthetic history of the gay 1970s needs to address not only the explicit (Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual collections) but also the arch and adjacent ( James Merrill’s ecstatic séance gatherings, Schuyler’s temperamental potpourris).”

What does Koestenbaum mean by “temperamental potpourris”? If he were writing a proper review, he would have to tell you. But “Epitaph on Twenty-third Street” isn’t about Schuyler; it’s about how around the bend Koestenbaum goes in hero-worshipping Schuyler. It’s a portrait of the kind of guy who can love a poet that much.

Moffo, because the soprano Anna Moffo, subject of the essay “Anna Moffo’s Funeral,” is the key to that side of Koestenbaum to which he devoted a whole earlier book, “The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire.” That was the book that I read in college to try to understand why some gay men loved opera so much. That book is totally impenetrable and unhelpful, and Koestenbaum’s repeated forays into Moffo-ana in this collection do nothing to clarify matters. Here is Paragraph 19 from “Anna Moffo’s Funeral,” a collection of 21 paragraphs numbered, Sontag style: “She still appears, a stalwart, in my dreams. March 18, 2008: I dreamt I found Anna Moffo on a train to Philadelphia. Quickly she disappeared, but for a moment she recognized me as her logical traveling companion.”

Harry, because the elegant cover of this book, by Rodrigo Corral, consists largely of Andy Warhol’s great photograph of Blondie’s lead singer, the subject, too, of Koestenbaum’s essay “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket.” This is the essay in which Koestenbaum most assiduously applies his opera-critical mode to pop music: “In the late 1970s, I listened to Blondie with a fanaticism founded on my belief that Debbie Harry’s vocal delivery would give me tips on differentiating the genuine from the fake in the apocalyptic world of romantic love.”

I could give many more examples of Koestenbaum’s queer (in both senses) capacity for inexplicable infatuation. I admire his passion without in the least sharing his tastes. I could have done with a lot more coherent argumentation, a lot less Lana Turner.

But here is another reason to visit Wayne’s World. After the closet, after the Defense of Marriage Act, after Rob Portman and Anderson Cooper and Jane Lynch, the confection of yearning and alienation that drove a certain kind of queer kid toward a life of diva identification, camping and a weakness for old movies may never again be present in the requisite doses. The audience for Koestenbaum’s allusive, elliptical critical mischief, always small, is probably dwindling to nothing. Seen that way, Koestenbaum is a preservationist, not just an essayist. You can take him or leave him as either. Much as he could take or leave you.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times and is the author of the memoir “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate” (Free Press, 2010).

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