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“Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision? Always accident, concussion, bodies butting together . . . By collision I also mean metaphor and metonymy: operations of slide and slip and transfuse.” In his new nonfiction collection, poet, artist, critic, novelist, and performer Wayne Koestenbaum enacts twenty-six ecstatic collisions between his mind and the world. A s “Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision? Always accident, concussion, bodies butting together . . . By collision I also mean metaphor and metonymy: operations of slide and slip and transfuse.” In his new nonfiction collection, poet, artist, critic, novelist, and performer Wayne Koestenbaum enacts twenty-six ecstatic collisions between his mind and the world. A subway passenger’s leather bracelet prompts musings on the German word for stranger; Montaigne leads to the memory of a fourth-grade friend’s stinky feet. Koestenbaum dreams about a hand job from John Ashbery, swims next to Nicole Kidman, reclaims Robert Rauschenberg’s squeegee, and apotheosizes Marguerite Duras as a destroyer of sentences. He directly proposes assignments to readers: “Buy a one-dollar cactus, and start anthropomorphizing it. Call it Sabrina.” “Describe an ungenerous or unkind act you have committed.” “Find in every orgasm an encyclopedic richness . . . Reimagine doing the laundry as having an orgasm, and reinterpret orgasm as not a tiny experience, temporally limited, occurring in a single human body, but as an experience that somehow touches on all of human history.” Figure It Out is both a guidebook for, and the embodiment of, the practices of pleasure, attentiveness, art, and play.


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“Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision? Always accident, concussion, bodies butting together . . . By collision I also mean metaphor and metonymy: operations of slide and slip and transfuse.” In his new nonfiction collection, poet, artist, critic, novelist, and performer Wayne Koestenbaum enacts twenty-six ecstatic collisions between his mind and the world. A s “Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision? Always accident, concussion, bodies butting together . . . By collision I also mean metaphor and metonymy: operations of slide and slip and transfuse.” In his new nonfiction collection, poet, artist, critic, novelist, and performer Wayne Koestenbaum enacts twenty-six ecstatic collisions between his mind and the world. A subway passenger’s leather bracelet prompts musings on the German word for stranger; Montaigne leads to the memory of a fourth-grade friend’s stinky feet. Koestenbaum dreams about a hand job from John Ashbery, swims next to Nicole Kidman, reclaims Robert Rauschenberg’s squeegee, and apotheosizes Marguerite Duras as a destroyer of sentences. He directly proposes assignments to readers: “Buy a one-dollar cactus, and start anthropomorphizing it. Call it Sabrina.” “Describe an ungenerous or unkind act you have committed.” “Find in every orgasm an encyclopedic richness . . . Reimagine doing the laundry as having an orgasm, and reinterpret orgasm as not a tiny experience, temporally limited, occurring in a single human body, but as an experience that somehow touches on all of human history.” Figure It Out is both a guidebook for, and the embodiment of, the practices of pleasure, attentiveness, art, and play.

30 review for Figure It Out

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tosh

    I love Wayne Koestenbaum's essays. It's an enjoyable experience to be in his brain. Also, a good book about writing. He has some excellent tips here as well.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Deedi Brown (DeediReads)

    All my reviews live at https://deedispeaking.com/reads/. Thank you to Soft Skull Press and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book! It will be published May 5, 2020. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book, although they net positive. There’s no doubt that Wayne Koestenbaum is whip smart, astute, and well written. The book’s not long, but it features quite a few essays, divided into several smaller sections. They have lots of different formats and structures, ranging fro All my reviews live at https://deedispeaking.com/reads/. Thank you to Soft Skull Press and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book! It will be published May 5, 2020. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book, although they net positive. There’s no doubt that Wayne Koestenbaum is whip smart, astute, and well written. The book’s not long, but it features quite a few essays, divided into several smaller sections. They have lots of different formats and structures, ranging from critique of culture to journal observations to artistic exercise instruction. I just don’t necessarily think I was this book’s best reader. I wasn’t very familiar with a lot of the people Koestenbaum referenced or critiqued, so those essays were hard for me. I was also glad to be reading on an ereader with a dictionary functionality, because he uses a lot of intense vocabulary words. And yet other essays drew me in and held me there; I particularly liked the ones where he provided writing exercises, the opening essay about chance encounters with two people in NYC, the one about his piano, and the one about words and grammar. I think ultimately, this book is worth picking up for the moments that will shine for you — and there will be some. Just don’t be afraid to bounce around from essay to essay if you need to.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Glen Helfand

    I read a passage, a paragraph about beards, from this book to a friend who proclaimed, "He can write about anything!" And find something profound, titillating, and for me, inspiring. What stands out in this collection of essays is that it reveals a way of looking at the world. The pieces are grouped to accent the key areas that merge in his work: daily life, sex, literature, and celebrities. Of course, throughout there are arcane words that seem to be mined from a dictionary of lost extravagance I read a passage, a paragraph about beards, from this book to a friend who proclaimed, "He can write about anything!" And find something profound, titillating, and for me, inspiring. What stands out in this collection of essays is that it reveals a way of looking at the world. The pieces are grouped to accent the key areas that merge in his work: daily life, sex, literature, and celebrities. Of course, throughout there are arcane words that seem to be mined from a dictionary of lost extravagances, and bits of obscure but fascinating information: Who knew that Susan Sontag went to North Hollywood High? (Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, I was thrilled!) Even better is that the book demonstrates Wayne's generosity as a teacher, offering various assignments that reveal his way of looking at the world. His voice is so singular, but his approach is so full of pleasure. I can't wait to do my homework!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Chris Roberts

    Self-indulgence on a semi-epic scale, the ego is a nasty little cockroach. #poem Chris Roberts, God Made Out in Electro-Lights

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dave Madden

    Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention. If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Thomas

    Thank you to Soft Skull for the ARC! Koestenbaum's meandering writings are, as usual, highly affecting. From thoughtful to cringey (Koestenbaum's way of talking about the body and using bodily metaphors is very much not my cup of tea, but is successful nonetheless), the essays in this collection cover a variety of topics that each serve as an epicenter for a blossoming of the author's thoughts, opening up the space for relections that make things complex seem simple, and things simple, complex.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Vincent Scarpa

    “The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to play with words and to keep playing with them — not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience.”

  8. 5 out of 5

    J.D. DeHart

    I was entertained, engaged, and mesmerized by Figure It Out. These essays are insightful and serve as a wonderful example of this form.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Scott Gould

    This guy seems wild, and that kind of art-smart I admire. But a lot of this was... over my head? Definitely some traces of John Waters-esque weirdo art project / cultural experiments vibe. And great for Soft Skull to grab all this publicity around it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

    Any book by Koestenbaum is a dip into his kaleidoscopic mind, where we might encounter anything from musings on size queens to anecdotes about encounters on the subway to beards to art to music to celebrities to fashion to imaginary events and dreams. This collection brings together essays, lists, journal entries, and other short writings that provide the reader with an excellent overview of Koestenbaum's mostly omnivorous thoughts (although there is a definite focus on white people, Jewishness, Any book by Koestenbaum is a dip into his kaleidoscopic mind, where we might encounter anything from musings on size queens to anecdotes about encounters on the subway to beards to art to music to celebrities to fashion to imaginary events and dreams. This collection brings together essays, lists, journal entries, and other short writings that provide the reader with an excellent overview of Koestenbaum's mostly omnivorous thoughts (although there is a definite focus on white people, Jewishness, men, and gay idols) about his life and life in general. If you can overlook what is omitted and revel in what he does think about and how he does it, this latest entry into the Koestenbaum library is dazzling and thoughtful and entertaining and frustrating and a good sampler of his work.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Cori

    I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I requested a copy of this book. I like essays, and I was intrigued by the description. I still have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into and may never know. One thing I like about collections of essays is being able to pick it up and put it down over a long period of time as you explore each stand alone piece of work. Each one provides an opportunity for careful examination and a deep dive into a short work because brevity has nothing to do with I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I requested a copy of this book. I like essays, and I was intrigued by the description. I still have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into and may never know. One thing I like about collections of essays is being able to pick it up and put it down over a long period of time as you explore each stand alone piece of work. Each one provides an opportunity for careful examination and a deep dive into a short work because brevity has nothing to do with depth. This will definitely be a book I keep by the couch to pick up during those unexpected pockets of time when I don’t know what else I want to do. Koestenbaum has an intense stream of conscious style of writing in which he “squirrels” from connection to connection as it seemingly popped into his head. With wide-ranging topics including smells, eyeglasses, punctuation and Madonna and Debbie Harry, you just won’t be able to anticipate what you will encounter when you begin a new piece. If there was ever a book to showcase what it means to be invited into someone’s inner monologue, this might be the gold standard. I may even set a goal for myself to actually fulfill his “Eighteen Lunchtime Assignments.”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!!!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Louis

    I took this book at just about an essay per day. I'd sit down with my coffee in the morning and, instead of the newspaper, let Koestenbaum's dreamy and saturated prose take me to an array of weird, wild and wet places. It was an excellent (if not strange) way to frame the month. It is perhaps the first time I've thought a cover perfectly represented the text. (Though I'm likely paying more attention to covers since recently reading Jhumpa Lahiri's little reflection on the subject.) The essays are I took this book at just about an essay per day. I'd sit down with my coffee in the morning and, instead of the newspaper, let Koestenbaum's dreamy and saturated prose take me to an array of weird, wild and wet places. It was an excellent (if not strange) way to frame the month. It is perhaps the first time I've thought a cover perfectly represented the text. (Though I'm likely paying more attention to covers since recently reading Jhumpa Lahiri's little reflection on the subject.) The essays are a jumble of thoughts and styles; managed chaos is sure to come from experimentation, after all. But the form and result is always splendid (if not wholly relatable). He is an explosion of vocabulary. Sometimes I looked up words; sometimes I let the opaqueness of one--or three--wash over me like waves. He describes writing as his mentor (John Barth) did: as a dichotomy between "stained glass" and "Windex:" "Stained glass writers considered their texts to be embroidered opacities that concealed reality. Windex writers believed that language was a transparent glass that gave unflecked access to the face of things...Toward stained glass my loyalty remains, though today I feel very Windex" (223). He lives in one space, but flexes--promiscuously--into others when the moment demands it. (Or maybe it doesn't demand it. Sometimes he flexes just for the hell of it.) This is his writer's journey. And it's pretty cool to witness.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Myles

    Masturbatory levels of self-indulgence in this one. A thought never enters Koestenbaum’s head that he doesn’t consider worth sharing, so here among a few interesting provocations (copped from 60s Yoko Ono) are bulging balloons of hot air. Expect references that go nowhere, overweight words, and on every page a palpable self-regard that isn’t exactly hidden beneath his whole “I’m just a loser freak nobody” schtick. My most painful reading experience in a while, but I was forced to finish it on a Masturbatory levels of self-indulgence in this one. A thought never enters Koestenbaum’s head that he doesn’t consider worth sharing, so here among a few interesting provocations (copped from 60s Yoko Ono) are bulging balloons of hot air. Expect references that go nowhere, overweight words, and on every page a palpable self-regard that isn’t exactly hidden beneath his whole “I’m just a loser freak nobody” schtick. My most painful reading experience in a while, but I was forced to finish it on a friend’s recommendation. The kind of book that leads me to seriously question the idea of giving books as gifts...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    Koestenbaum is the sort of intellectual I imagine myself to be in my head. An insightful, witty observer of culture, with a catalog of references that expand like a Borges library. Some of the work is highly performative, but charmingly so. I read "The Queen's Throat" years ago--in grad school I believe--and I don't understand why I never followed up with more. I can only plead that there are so many things to read, and I no longer travel in circles where such works are routinely discussed. Than Koestenbaum is the sort of intellectual I imagine myself to be in my head. An insightful, witty observer of culture, with a catalog of references that expand like a Borges library. Some of the work is highly performative, but charmingly so. I read "The Queen's Throat" years ago--in grad school I believe--and I don't understand why I never followed up with more. I can only plead that there are so many things to read, and I no longer travel in circles where such works are routinely discussed. Thankfully I stumbled across a review of this latest and it renewed the spark.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bg96

    Not quite sure what this is meant to be about. The author's style is certainly "meandering", as another reviewer pointed out: essays orbit their subject matter, only occasionally getting close to the point. They are also structured in a stream-of-consciousness way and so jump from one thing to the other.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Soft Skull

    A new collection of intimate reflections (on art, punctuation, eyeglasses, color, dreams, celebrity, corpses, porn, and translation) and “assignments” that encourage pleasure, attentiveness, and acts of playful making, from the mischievous, munificent, extraordinary mind of legendary public intellectual Wayne Koestenbaum.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Liquidlasagna

    Buy a one-dollar cactus, and start anthropomorphizing it. Call it Sabrina. I would say that redeems all the cringeworthy stuff. My first impression is that he throws things against the wall and sees what sticks 50% of his stuff is pointless, the rest is pretty clever, all 49% of it the other 1%? write me

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cat

    just what i needed

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jan Ayers

    Game of Pearls and the writing exercises made me give this four stars.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia Barron

    smart! so smart! annotated the whole thing. if i were to ever write criticism i would want it to be like this. digestible, funny, tangible, new. want to read his other stuff too.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alissa Elliott

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rhoda

  24. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ian

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

  27. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

  28. 5 out of 5

    Miles

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

  30. 4 out of 5

    David Cantin

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