June 2007

Amy Shearn


Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum

The first of this book’s many pleasurable challenges is figuring out where to start -- literally how to read the twinned narratives within it. When was the last time you picked up a book and felt vaguely frightened? It’s a strangely exhilarating experience. Hotel Theory (a philosophic enquiry into the hotel state of being) races Hotel Women (an elliptical dime store novel featuring Liberace and Lana Turner) in columns down each page. Do you read one in its entirety, and then the other? Do you go a page at a time? The first leaf is intimidating, a leap into the unknown. Read both columns at the same time and the experience is a bit like watching a subtitled film -- at first it seems impossible that one could ever pay attention to both at the same time, but this new kind of reading quickly becomes second nature.

And once one begins to read this way, the side-by-side paragraphs start to illuminate each other. What an interesting texture Koestenbaum’s mind has! From Hotel Theory: “A hotel room is where the narrator establishes calm and panic as twinned, simultaneous states of being. The hotel minimizes horror, postpones its arrival, and provides a stage for numinous encounters.” Alongside this passage, Hotel Women reads: “You are so fucking masculine, Liberace thought, in Hotel Women, as he stared at his nude reflection. You have so many reasons to be proud of yourself.” Liberace is simultaneously calm and panicked, weathering a bout of existential despair by focusing on his own numinous encounter with Lana Turner (how are Liberace and Lana in the same place at the same time? Simple: “Time moved abnormally in Hotel Women. Several decades coexisted without quarrelling” ). Likewise, as Hotel Theory expostulates on what it is to be a “hotel woman” -- liminal, remote, a little lost -- Hotel Women shows us one in its whacked version of Lana Turner. Koestenbaum picks apart the strands that a traditional novel is composed of -- the beat and counterbeat of showing and telling, of characterization and abstraction -- and pins them to the wall, side by side, like specimens of literary taxidermy.

Hotel Theory is allusive, revelatory, frighteningly smart. There is a generous democracy of influence -- from Heidegger to a Julia Stiles movie, from Duchamp to Chopin. Koestenbaum repeatedly reminds us of the ways in which hotel rooms are blank slates, hotel rooms are prison cells, hotel rooms are populated by ghosts and omens and unclean sex and all matter of possibilities. Interestingly, he refers to hotel rooms as genres, and genres as holding pens that lend shape to the art that occurs within them. Meanwhile, on the other side of the page, the polymorphously perverse Lana and Liberace remove their bathing suits, rub suntan oil into each other’s bodies, discuss their identities, work, and lives. The unlikely pair parse the angst of fame and commiserate over the difficulties of assuming new role after new role, like stepping into a hotel room and making it one’s own. Their real-life troubles (Liberace always denied being a homosexual and eventually died of AIDS, Lana was embroiled in a famous murder scandal) are alluded to, swirled into the story of their fictional intersection.

Just as Liberace and Lana’s various roles shape their identities, Hotel Women’s form shapes the story. The words “a” “an” and “the” do not appear, and this in addition to the column form births an intensely compressed prose. But this isn’t merely experimentation for experimentation’s sake: form is to Hotel Women as the hotel room is to individual.

Not a good choice for plot-lovers, the book ends rather precipitously, offering only a few winking allusions to literary convention, teasing the reader for expecting something so simple as a conclusion. But the reading offers a bounty of other particular, peculiar pleasures. It’s strangely funny, and hugely alive to the possibilities of fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between. In the end, this is a book about “the pleasures of testing the boundaries of articulation.” That, and Liberace’s penis.

Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1933368691
192 Pages