Adding to his mind-altering oeuvre, which already includes poems, a novel, and works of criticism on subjects like Andy Warhol, Jackie O, and gay men’s penchant for opera, Wayne Koestenbaum delivers a coup d’état with Hotel Theory, a palimpsest of postmodern detritus presented in two parallel texts. On the left side of the page, “Hotel Theory,” Koestenbaum’s phenomenological study of hotels, provides the mental framework for the reader to act as a Bachelardian cosmonaut in the Lana Turner and Liberace dime novel “Hotel Women” on the right. Hotel Theory showcases Koestenbaum’s inflections via innumerable analogies to literature and art, and hotel interludes with guests ranging from Oscar Wilde to Richard Strauss to Marilyn Monroe.
Formally, Hotel Theory is redolent of Arno Schmidt’s linguistic ingenuity and solipsism, while its content is tinged with Peter Sotos’s lime-streaked animus. Koestenbaum established his aim “to refurbish the meaning of hotel” by reading, or occupying, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. “Heidegger was my hotel,” he writes, enabling his examination of “never dwelling anywhere.” Just as hotel rooms are inhabited by a series of disparate personalities, each reference yields a stream of inconsonant concepts; Heidegger inspires both philosophical meditation and memories of custard pie.
Deciding how to read the book is a labyrinthine mission. One is abstracted to the nth degree by “Hotel Theory” and almost forgets that “Hotel Women” exists. “Theory” can be used as a reader’s guide to Koestenbaum’s Ulysses, “Women”: a trashy novel wherein Lara and Liberace convene to recover from, respectively, an “exhausting mental life” and an immoral life.
If a book is a hotel, Koestenbaum asserts, then “literary form is a hotel room.” He writes to individuate himself, positing that writers work in hotels to avoid Heidegger’s communal “They.” Isolation opens doors; referencing Charles Simic, “a guest could, alone in a hotel room, become a saint.” Koestenbaum seeks to reach Charles Baudelaire’s anterior, to be “refreshed by nothing, by a room one merely imagines,” a stasis attainable only in writing.
Language in text and in hotel is at once illuminated and eliminated in the devastation of literary hotel deaths: Walter Benjamin’s suicide in Spain is central. Optimal hotel woman Jean Rhys’s “short sentences, controlled, like Didion’s,” also reflect the “hotel woman’s poetic measurement of consciousness into tidy fragments.” Fragmentation is hotel women’s undoing.
Akin to bp Nichol’s slow erasure of his favorite letter, h, in his pataphysical long poem Zygal, in “Women” the articles a, the, and an are omitted. The result is an inexorable fusion of object and subject; even “Hotel Theory” becomes the object— Hotel Theory, across the street from languid Hotel Women. Employees dread the prospect of working at Theory. Hotels destroy the need for any language but their own: “To hotel is to modify.”
Hotels are invented by music and sleep. Music swells the hotel’s analgesic languor; Koestenbaum refers to a woman’s voice in Francis Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, which “makes opera of hotel consciousness,” and “Chopin in his Ballade seems a hotel woman.” He references Elizabeth Bishop’s poems concerning sleep and identifies with her desire to “be given a single, rigid book whose meanings she may bend.” Koestenbaum dreams of a Jewish library and likens the texts to cheap suits.
Indulging in the euphoria of the nomad, Koestenbaum fears the commitment of check-in. He distrusts the “insufficiently philosophical” clerks. “A fugitive sensibility or character” pervades hotel women and hotels. He recalls how James Baldwin was arrested for bedsheet theft and sent to the prison where Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the protagonist moves from hotel to asylum. Conversely, “the hotel condition check[s] into you.” No matter how many trinkets fill a hotel room, it is never a home. Text re-forms around our trinkets or personal experiences, which push “the book away from its proper identity.” Like Michel de Certeau’s “mutations,” Koestenbaum’s meditations “make a text habitable.”
The stars unveil their desires in conversation atop the hotel at Observation Point, from which Hotel Theory is visible. Without binoculars, they can’t see into Theory’s rooms. Each looks for “commensurability and parallelism,” and stagnancy recuperates them. Lana worries that “eventfulness” could “destroy her equilibrium,” while Liberace is soothed by a cyclamen in his room: “It was stationary, while Liberace’s career was advancing.”
At the climax, Lana’s mother, Mildred, emblem of traditions Lana seeks to abandon, murders an anonymous man. Hotel crowds diffuse blame; the murder goes unpunished. Checkout turns literal as hotel-death references accumulate: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Ernest Hemingway. Sordid notes erode meaning: “I hate all movement”; “Your bottom is . . . divine!”
In the midst of the cold war, Hotel Women rests on the cusp of a black hole and guests threaten to dematerialize. “Hotel Women” itself comes to an early end. In “Theory,” author Colette’s separation from the actual in a boardinghouse “prolongs melancholy.” Across the page, Lana and Liberace discuss Armageddon. Lana reluctantly accompanies Liberace into the hotel’s “top-notch bomb shelter” and wonders, “Will maids clean our rooms after Armageddon?” Even Armageddon is meaningless.
After all that destruction, Lana’s baby Helena’s first words are sublimely refreshing. Free from association, they signify a call home. Koestenbaum negotiates theoretical versus spoon-fed existence. And although the road between “Hotel Theory” and “Hotel Women” is fraught with obstacles, it is also the only way to the sea.
Janine Armin is the coeditor of the literary anthology Toronto Noir, forthcoming from Akashic in 2008.