cover image Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics

Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics

Wayne Koestenbaum. Ballantine Books, $14 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-345-43460-9

According to Koestenbaum, culture is all around us: in movie magazines, paparazzi, Robert Mapplethorpe's photos, Princess Di's dresses and, of course, Liz Taylor. After deconstructing gay men and opera (The Queen's Throat) and prominent first ladies (Jackie Under My Skin), the ever-observant Koestenbaum has assembled in these 49 reprinted essays an idiosyncratic overview of the state of U.S. popular culture as well as his own mind. His charm and power as a writer reside in his ability to wed his own obsessions with the most serious and the most frivolous of cultural manifestations. For him, a meditation on Oscar Wilde's trial prompts the statement, ""I... believe that desire is extreme and anti-social."" An essay on Elizabeth Taylor moves easily from her looks to his own gender identity: ""After watching Elizabeth Taylor movies I feel eerily masculine. Her beauty shoves me out of maleness and compresses me back into it."" In a less astute or self-aware writer, such leaps might read as simple narcissism or miscalculated post-modern posturing, but Koestenbaum is able to combine personal writing and cultural analysis in a way that advances both with poise and intelligence. While some of the pieces are less substantial--such as his quirky short essays on envy and masochism--Koestenbaum delivers when he writes most personally. ""The Aryan Boy,"" an introspective essay on masculinity, homosexuality and Jewish identity, shows the author at his best: moving, insightful and fueled by his ability to shock, provoke and challenge. (Mar.)