Koestenbaum has long been fascinated with people who rarely speak or who speak awkwardly — the breathy banalities of Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Kennedy, for example. He crushes on evasion and ambiguity, but his own prose has always been distinguished by its tautness and agility. The new book is a more relaxed performance, however. The pieces feel rawer, some almost deliberately jagged, even unfinished; they trail off, or end in sudden dissolve. The polish has been sacrificed for a kind of intimacy, of interrupting the writer at his desk, midsentence ... There is a feeling of watching a writer so allergic to cliché now interrogating his own moves, annotating his own clichés with diligent, affectionate exasperation. Figuring it out, after all, is a life sentence.
Ah, yes: The bark of another Wayne Koestenbaum collection. Our great, roving, leashless dog of modern essay-writing — constantly sniffing at the groin of an idea, taking in its rich musks, savoring them with two wide nostrils — bounds up the slope, yet again, for a book of essays that audit a series of extremely indulgent, largely beautiful, mostly dissociated objects of fascination ... Understandably, your mileage may vary on all of this. It can be, sometimes, terminally and specifically precious — smilingly glib with a distinctive fatty gristle that lives in the meat of a lot of solipsistic writing. There are echoes of his friends and heroes within — Frank O’ Hara’s tendernesses, Dennis Cooper’s erotics — which, in comparison, makes Koestenbaum’s dominant texture feel all the more impish and sybaritic, like watching someone rehearse their laugh in a mirror ... Like all reflective objects though, the act of essaying has a twoness about it.
A recognition of skepticism about...form pulses through Figure It Out—and Koestenbaum’s work writ large ... Koestenbaum’s pointillistic method relies upon synapses between text fragments. Indeed, it isn’t quite fragments that index his signature style but the mental choreography suggested in the intervening schisms. What looks like a fissure in a Koestenbaum essay represents a cognitive gesture ... What unifies these essays isn’t an exploration of a single subject, as has been the case in Koestenbaum’s monographs, such as Humiliation; here, the collection’s title might be read as the writer’s wry, modernist incitement: Figure it out ... Koestenbaum’s writing, like his interests, is diffuse and gymnastic. Cutting a silhouette around white space with his longtime preoccupations of art, desire, form, famous people dead and alive, the work in Figure It Out embodies Lukács’s definition of the essay itself as 'an autonomous and integral giving-of-form to an autonomous and complete life.' It is in the non-pause that Koestenbaum draws a portrait of a consciousness, free and at its most utterly alive.
Unlike many examples of theory, which can be intellectually rigorous but narratively stagnant, Koestenbaum’s essays actively analyze and move like investigations, encouraging readers to follow along like Watson to Holmes. Although the writing can be wordy and indirect, the essays are engaging, and it becomes an adventure to follow Koestenbaum’s playful and occasionally raunchy train of thought ... The title Figure It Out can be understood in two ways. In one sense, it is what he is doing throughout the book, the ‘it’ often being why he thinks or feels a certain way. In another sense, it means shaping or constructing in order to expand from the center outwards. These two meanings overlap within the collection and provide just one example of Koestenbaum’s fluidity of language. Either way, it is a call to action to the readers to do the same.
No matter the focus, Koestenbaum proceeds with an agile, sidling insouciance. Prone to enthusiasms, he can verge on hyperbole, and a few pieces are slight, leaning too close to self-help, a perilous direction for an author so exquisitely self-absorbed. Yet it is his unswerving commitment to his own taste and instinct that allows him so much insight into the works of others who are equally committed to their affinities and practices. What he beautifully observes about poet Adrienne Rich might just as well be said of him: 'Rich was a natural historian with an ear for the music that politics makes in the body.'
... rambling ... The author offers sly ruminations on punctuation and style with sidebar examples from a wide array of artists and writers ... This kind of prose could be overly chaotic in the hands of a lesser writer, but Koestenbaum has a knack for mostly keeping things together with sincerity, surprises, and wit ... A little Koestenbaum goes a long way—best taken in small bites.
... inventive but self-absorbed ... Spiraling in structure and dizzyingly varied in theme, the essays are peppered with reveries and fantasies, suggesting a kind of ramble through Koestenbaum’s consciousness ... Themes of sexuality and gender are pervasive, typically in eye-catching declarations which some may find provocative, others tiresome. There’s fun and games and erudition throughout, but one has to be a card-carrying Koestenbaum fan to get into the full spirit of this assemblage.