Literary Review: Koestenbaum | Sampsell | Schwartz

Posted November 4, 2013 in Arts and Culture, Print

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My 1980s & Other Essays
Wayne Koestenbaum
[Farrar, Strauss and Giroux]

Walter Benjamin once spoke about the modern world growing ‘poor in threshold experiences’. Wayne Koestenbaum, hearing this, made the fragment his signature vehicle of expression. My 1980s flits between Heidegger and Hart Crane, between Cary Grant and Debbie Harry. It is a collection of smithereens. Koestenbaum has been described as a love child of Sontag, Barthes, and Didion. What he lacks is their stateliness. He has nothing of Sontag’s ability to substantiate uncertainty, for instance; to use aphorism to delineate all that lies outside of itself. His supposed progenitors operate at the antipodes of certainty. Often, Koestenbaum closes possibility down. His prose is so lacquered, his kitsch so studied, that it remains in the grain of the doxa it seeks to dethrone.

Still, Koestenbaum does light on the connection between despair and whimsy. In the title essay (reminiscent of Joe Brainard’s I Remember) he says he lived all through the 1980s in the fear that he was HIV positive – in the fear of finding out. If Didion’s essays are acts of patience, his are acts of flight.

It is in phrase-making that Koestenbaum is most original. Frank O’Hara’s work is ‘a velocity without Futurism’s militaristic seriousness’; John Ashbery is an ‘apostle of going nowhere’. But he is always skipping out; his parsing painfully syncopated. Elizabeth Hardwick’s sentences may well be forged in the ‘wine-dark sea of precise excoriation’, but Koestenbaum never gets inside this idea, never gets into its bones.

Although the precocity of his language, even of his thought, seems to consign Koestenbaum to an elongated pubescence (‘I used to jerk off while reading scenes from Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge’) there are certain things that only adolescence makes legible. Adulthood snuffs out what insecurity gives back, what we find out by not knowing. Upon the title piece rests the solemnity of a bildungsroman in whose profound greenness we hear the echo of time passing. To be human is to feel the ‘body’s small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward into a future that seemed at every instant on the verge of being shut down’. – Joanne O’Leary



This Is Between Us
Kevin Sampsell
[Tin House Books]

This Is Between Us is a more warm-hearted proposition than you’d expect from a proponent of literary minimalism. Sampsell’s choice of form is to address every sentence to ‘you’, the significant other of the text, over the course of five years. Gradually her presence accretes to an almost total fullness, and the same is true of the narrator: address creates both speaker and listener. This address format is supple enough to keep excess density from a longish-form experiment with sentence-focused methods.

There’s a deep innocence to Sampsell’s tone, even when his narrator is looking up porn featuring people who resemble his girlfriend. His success here is an argument against the go-tos of gimlet realism (the ocean of writers who wish they were Jonathan Franzen) and pouting irony (the ocean of writers who wish they were Lorrie Moore). The fear is that the rose-tinted lenses would haze out significant detail, but Sampsell presents love as a heightening of awareness. He zeroes in on feet ‘clapping against…flip-flops’, the ‘thin delicate bridge between your toughness and your sadness’. Granted, Year Two can seem a little cloying, even teenage. But if you remember that the novel concerns two divorcés pushing forty, This Is Between Us becomes an intriguing document of parenting and love in a time when nobody really knows what adult means anymore. The clamour of ‘other people’, the uncertain cut-off- and starting-points and the attempted camera-phone sex are all registered with fleetness, accuracy and humour. This is a rare high-wire act in passionate virtuosity. – Tim Smyth 



John the Posthumous
Jason Schwartz
[OR Books]

This enormous novel is very short and does not resemble a novel. There are some characters here, I think, but they are never fleshed out. They come as names, existentially fragile inasmuch as they are pointedly graphic (‘Gertrude, in blue ink’, ‘William, in cursive’). It would take no more than ‘a table knife or a razorblade’ to excise them from a text that wants only to call attention to textuality. Several pages are spent comparing translations of the Bible until eventually even its pictorial representations become textual: ‘Satan is often shown without a right hand – or with the letter X in its stead.’ Methodically the narrative makes an inventory of archaic vocabulary and darkly suggestive etymologies. (‘Pigeon’s bone refers to a manacle or a shackle, especially at a hanging.’) But the exacting prose in which it does so turns out to reveal nothing but its own inexactitude. The narrator’s obscure dictionary is dubious at best; often its entries are outright false. ‘The word adultery derives from cry,’ he claims before confessing that actually it ‘does not; just as you had suspected’. What we find concealed within these falsified (read: creative) definitions is in fact an ontologically precarious murder mystery which, composed by an author for whom text is misleading and meaning unstable, comes largely resistant to spoilers. It is a case built on intimations. We are missing a killing. We are missing a crime scene. We are missing a body, too. If this information was ever put down in writing, it has since been removed. After all, it would take no more than a table knife. – Kevin Breathnach 



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