“Circus” by Wayne Koestenbaum— Hot and Lurid

Koestenbaum, Wayne. “Circus: or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes: A Novel”, Soft Skull Press, 2019.

Hot and Lurid

Amos Lassen

This Soft Skull reissue of Wayne Koestenbaum’s 2004 debut novel “Circus” has been republished and that’s reason to rejoice. Now with an introduction by Rachel Kushner, it is the perfect book for summer in that it makes you forget the heat outside and think about the heat on the pages of the novel. One reviewer has stated, “It’s fever-hot, lurid to the extreme, and filled with the kind of lunatic linguistic acrobatics that leave you gasping for air.” I cannot think of a finer recommendation.

 Theo Mangrove is a concert pianist who has been  living at his family’s home in East Kill, New York for the last five years. He is recovering from a nervous breakdown that has ruined his career. Now he is trying to deal with his “relentless polysexual appetite in the company of male hustlers, random strangers, music students, his aunt, and occasionally his wife.” He is also preparing for a comeback recital in Aigues-Mortes, a walled medieval town in southern France and has become obsessed with the idea that the Italian circus star Moira Orfei must join him there to perform alongside him. Theo has been describing his plans in a series of twenty-five notebooks and has written assembles an incantatory meditation on performance, failure, fame, decay, and delusion.

You may know Koestenbaum from his brilliant, “The Queen’s Throat”. He rarely writes fiction, but when he does, it is totally off of the wall. He seems not to believe in narrative continuity and formal completion and “Circus”  is made up of a series of notebooks authored by the narrator. It shares  the highs and lows of Theo Mangrove’s small-town life and histrionic musical hopes and desires. His accounts are detailed, raw, and sexually explicit; we learn that Theo is suffering from HIV and his body is gradually deteriorating. As it does,  he obsesses over a classical repertoire that he may or may not perform.

The novel is written ala a surreal fever dream and is the swan song of Theo Mangrove. Koestenbaum plays with the “deranged aesthetics of literary artifice practiced by such luminary predecessors as Baudelaire, Nerval, Artaud, Rimbaud, and Huysmans to tantalizing effect.”

“It is mad; it is totally fabulous” and now has been given a new life. We see thatTheo is more penis than pianist and he loves lists. He lists the places he’s been, the piano works he’s played, the people he knows, what he ate, what he drank, and what sexual perversion he has in indulged, or thought about indulging, etc. It’s a read you will not forget.


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