August 2013

Micah McCrary

nonfiction

My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum

When I first saw the title of Wayne Koestenbaum's My 1980s and Other Essays, I thought about what it might mean to claim a decade. I thought about how, though born in the mid-eighties, I still hold a fondness for kaleidoscopic dress and music made from synthesizers. I hold onto memories of first seeing The Goonies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as if these memories lock me into being a part of one generation rather than another. It essentially becomes a temporal self-identification, a need to combine I am with a moment in time.

Koestenbaum's work doesn't exactly do this. Though his titular essay comes with a possessive, it -- like most of the book -- is more a declaration of perception than a claim to a spot on a timeline. "Despite my best efforts," he writes, "I existed in history, not as agent but as frightened, introspective observer." This is how we come to know his eighties -- he was more watcher than participant, a spectator learning to emulate the world.

"I was not thinking about the world. I was not thinking about history. I was thinking about my body's small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward into a future that seemed at every instant on the verge of being shut down." A self-professed "self-ethnographer," Koestenbaum is an avid looker, and what's filtered through his gaze becomes easy to appreciate. Whether he writes about himself, Susan Sontag, or the stubble of a young man named Eric, Koestenbaum has one aim: effective criticism.

What this means is that, as an author, he's able to write the subject without explicit judgment. He's able, during many moments in his essays, to critique by way of scrutiny and personalization, bringing the reader into his perception instead of merely saying what the perception is. He writes in "Advice for the Young":

I have turned literature, like every love, into a harness. The discursive situations I confront -- audience, reader -- hold me like a vise, and so I end up not speaking, rather than trying to begin the awful, necessary work of accommodating myself to that confinement, learning the dimensions of prison so I might transform it into a nursery.

This might be the most important quality of Koestenbaum's work: his attempts at making a prison a nursery. Literary or not, criticism is confinement, but a critic and essayist like Koestenbaum is able to find comfort here, able to show off shimmering sentences while he delves deep into a theory. It isn't easy to talk about Susan Sontag, or Roland Barthes, or Andy Warhol or the Pathos of Art with personal ease, but he does it. Or, at least he makes it look easy. There isn't a moment we forget we're reading Wayne Koestenbaum, and this is his success.

Some of Koestenbaum's titles -- "In Defense of Nuance," "Dear Sigmund Freud," "Fag Limbo," "Eric's Stubble," "Notes on Affinity" -- should give us an idea of the feel he's going for here, a stern but satiny kind of work. "As Bartleby and his compatriots understood," he writes in "Roberto Bolaņo's Tone," "one must leave literature to find it again; one must lower one's voice to raise it." Koestenbaum, I think, is a master of the lowered voice, that inkling of sound one must lean toward in order to absorb. This is the voice we want from a critic -- not something loud and verbose, but rather something gentle and en pointe. A collection of essays can be a difficult place to find this, as so often a collection will contain some out-of-place pieces of writing (and even this collection, for an essay or two, feels thrown together), but overall I see a body when I engage My 1980s, a thoughtful and sensible whole.

"Some people obsessively reexamine their lives," he writes, "others straightforwardly endure them. I would rather be one who endures; instead, I am an examiner." I'm glad for this examination. Without it we would probably have a book by one of those verbose critics rather than someone attempting earnestly to take the position of the worrier. There's anxiety in Koestenbaum's work. There's wonder here, too, and the combination of the two give me a critic that I not only want to read but a critic I want to get to know. It's human to worry, and writing about these worries is a perfect bonding agent. "I aggressively solicit the posture of longing," he writes in "Eric's Stubble." This posture -- this deep, burdened posture -- is exactly what I gain as I lean in, for a close listen of a frightened, introspective watcher.

My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum
FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374533779
336 pages