Drinking martinis with Wayne Koestenbaum

Thoughts on Figure It Out

I’m imagining I’m at a cocktail party. There’s a piano in the corner, people are dressed to the nines (heels, headpieces), some light music in the background, drowned out by the sound of chit-chat and laughter. Wayne Koestenbaum is leaning against the piano, swizzling an olive around a dry martini glass and telling anecdotes – a little sordid, but always told with enough wit and charm to please even a more straight, conservative listener. I don’t know how I know this, but we’re in New York.

I have never been to New York, nor have I ever been to this kind of party – where people wear headpieces and heels, laugh softly over cool jazz. So why do I find this kind of scenario so easy to imagine? I’ve been watching too many Sex and the City reruns recently, it’s true, but there’s also something about this “fab New York” mythology that’s hard to shake. It’s a world I once imagined I’d gain access to when, aged 17, I upped and left the suburbs of Yorkshire for capital city living (Dublin, then London). I did not find it and would have felt very out of place if I would have. Yet, reading through Wayne Koestenbaum’s latest collection of essays, Figure It Out, this is exactly how I picture myself, sipping an imaginary martini and laughing, enraptured by his storytelling.

I’ll make a confession: I haven't read much Wayne Koestenbaum before now. His name is one I’ve seen bandied about by loved writers, artists and friends, so I know instinctively he’ll be up my boulevard. Both in reading and in life, I enjoy the company of a fabulous, erudite homosexual who can talk about art and sex with equal frankness and fervour, who can bring a painting to life by switching seamlessly into filth (a choice turn of phrase from Figure It Out: “Kandinsky lines shooting jizz-like into space”). See also: John Waters, Edmund White, John Giorno. This type of writer is my most cherished, so it’s long overdue that I get my hands on one of Koestenbaum’s essay collections.

The opening essay in this collection is teasingly titled – ‘Do You Want to Touch It?’ – and the tease is a key part of Koestenbaum’s storytelling technique. He recounts his encounters with attractive men on the subway, in an elevator: frisson-filled episodes that he confesses will bring nothing sexual (or otherwise) into fruition, but from which an electric shock of vitality is palpable when reading these pages. The exchanged looks and charged words with a stranger that go nowhere but make you feel alive, adding a spring to your step on a Thursday morning, the sexual currency that city living is fuelled by. Koestenbaum is a pleasure-seeker, playful but not a “player”, trading high-charged energy from the ever-expanding playground of New York City boys (or at least it was, pre-you know what).

I’m enjoying this buoyant, suggestive prose so far, and yet I instinctively sense that this is not Koestenbaum’s best work. Sure, I’m relishing the read. Now more than ever, I’m craving the company of charming individuals – back at that imaginary cocktail party with the heels and headpieces, in a kitchen with the fabulous friend you see only twice a year, but whose anecdotes are riveting enough to keep you buoyed until the next encounter (“oh my gosh! I haven’t seen you since Harry’s birthday last year…”). These are the types of friends we’re all lacking right now: the ones you don’t text to ask how they are (you probably don’t even have their number), but if it were allowed, you would immediately greet them with hugs and gusto if you ran into them at a party.

Back to Koestenbaum. Yes, as I said, perhaps not his best work. I’m a fan of autofiction, of a self-aware narrator, but Koestenbaum’s self-deprecating voice can feel a little too on-the-nose at times. Get back on with the storytelling, Wayne, I think to myself as I sip my imaginary martini: it’s what you do best. Scanning the list of his past titles in the inside jacket of my copy of Figure It Out, my skin is tingling: Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars and Aesthetics; Hotel Theory; Humiliation; The Pink Trance Notebooks. I realise one cannot judge a book by its title, but at the same time, one can judge a book by its title, and these ones have me captivated. I imagine Koestenbaum on his best form with these earlier books, crowds of party guests gathering around him as he leans against the piano, swizzling his olive.

This is not quite the form we find him in in Figure It Out. He admits the occasional anecdote has been repeated, I suspect others lack the sharp bite of those from yore, but I find myself in a crowd of committed listeners gathering around him nonetheless because even his more mundane essays are somewhat charming, and because even on a bad day, this kind of friend makes us feel good. I read through the rest of Figure It Out enjoying every word, but even more cheered by the knowledge I have a whole archive of writings still to discover.

Figure It Out was published in May 2020. Find it on Waterstones here or ask for it in your local independent bookshop