Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum
To be at hotel, in the terms of Wayne Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory, is to be not at home. We are all of us in modern societies at hotel: dislocated and groundless. Familiarity and stability we may find in people, in work, perhaps in books or music, but not in the spaces and places we inhabit—perhaps even if we have been there all our lives, because those spaces and places have been defamiliarized, destabilized.
Koestenbaum’s text is itself in this condition, not at home in the space it occupies on the page—most emphatically because that space has been riven in two. The left column, printed in Courier, the common typewriter font, is a loosely organized sequence of memos and musings on hotel theory, ranging, as critical writing will, from Heidegger to low culture. On the right, in Charter, is a narrative set at Hotel Women, where the residents—of whom we spend most time with Liberace and Lana Turner—have little to do but oil each other’s backs on the roofdeck.
The two texts, Hotel Theory and Hotel Women, unfold side by side. And separately. In the same way that very little happens (until the closing paragraphs) between the two central characters of the fiction, lying alongside one another on their reclining chairs in the Californian sun, in swimsuits or sometimes naked, so the two blocks on each page maintain an independence tremulous with unfulfilled potential. The reader’s eye may scan from one to the other, but always to find that each column’s words and thoughts are proceeding calmly, proximate but untouching, each as ignorant of the other as the residents of two hotels across a street.
At Hotel Women the guestts are further estranged by existing in a language without articles, either definite or indefinite. They thus live in a world of generalities and plurals, as if the constant sun had erased the particular—except in the case of objects pertaining to the characters, objects that can be introduced by ‘his’ or ‘her’. Everything is either remote, hovering in the heat haze, or else sharply but blankly lit; all is vagueness and personal belongings. Here, for example, is a passage where Liberace has borrowed Lana’s lighter to ignite a rooftop bonfire:
Using Lana’s tool, Liberace lit newspaper bundles, which immediately caught fire. Liberace took off his Hotel Woman terry robe to reveal loose boxers. Lana stripped off her dress but retained panties and bra for protection. On chaises longues before flames, Lana and Liberace lay down.
What Liberace gathered for his fire may be significant, for Hotel Women’s daily paper is bringing news of impending world war. Such reports do little to trouble residents’ daily routine of tanning, swimming and desultory conversation, wonderfully and wittily evoked in Koestenbaum’s article-less language. But there are moments, too, of poignancy when guests are burned by their constriction, and this becomes almost explicit when Liberace fails in his attempt to convey to Lana how he still feels about his son’s abduction and murder:
"I hear emotion in what you’re saying," said Lana.
"But not enough!" shouted Liberace. "Tommy was only five years old." Liberace was griefstricken that he could not be more emotional in describing Tommy’s tragic death. Liberace believed that if he could recount it with sufficient passion, then he could encourage Lana to watch Baby Helena [her daughter] carefully and avoid similar tragedies. But whenever Liberace tried to describe death to another hotel resident or friend, Liberace felt cold, and this seeming remoteness brought him near tears.
Liberace, shorn even of his most intense experiences, has become almost pure (in a sense) body. Meanwhile in Hotel Theory, across the way, Koestenbaum displays a mentality abundant with memories, dreams and readings. Here he is, for example, at ‘Hotel Chopin Genre’, one of his text’s numerous rooms:
The nature of a hotel room, uniform, can’t be determined by its occupant. The hotel room’s fixed structure enforces the inhabitant’s passivity.
Genre permits autonomy, and yet it draws, from the outset, draconian limits: these restrictions, comforting, permit artistic production. (One cannot produce outside of genre.)
Chopin’s music speaks of exile, displacement—the ennui of not being at home.
Because we are at hotel, not at home, such insights, into the nature of hotels or into what may be a prime source of the hotel feeling in Chopin, cannot be developed. There is no space, no ground, and the only grand thesis is that no grand thesis is possible. A kind of listlessness, melancholy but illuminating, searches from room to room, and often the result will be poetic, as when we encounter Louise Glück at ‘Hotel Eros’:
Isolation, not conjunction, constitutes the erotics of the hotel room, where we freely contemplate the falling away of body from body. Louise Glück, in her poem "Eros," describes sitting in a chair at a hotel window "to watch the rain." She is "in a kind of dream or trance." The hotel room is a site of tryst but also of not-being-together. Even in the midst of adhesion, she luxuriates in apartness. Hotel erotics depend on oblivious trance, not on touch or closeness.
A strange absence of emotion colors these reflections, like a nearly invisible gray shadow.
Does this last sentence mean that the authorial voice of Hotel Theory is in the same condition as Hotel Women’s Liberace, adrift from the experiences to be described, or is the ‘strange absence of emotion’ part of those very experiences in this case, as well it might be in a state of ‘apartness’ and ‘oblivious trance’? The ambiguity is surely intended. To be at hotel is to be away—away from action (if by no means from desire), away from linkage. And though one might want to counter that the hotel room as ‘a site of tryst’ is not to be so easily glided over—just as one might want to object that many people will never in their lives enter a hotel room, unless to clean it or fix the air-conditioning—Koestenbaum’s prose, sophisticated and innocent, speculative and learned, is also persuasive and delighftful.
Hotel Theory flitters and flashes like an exotic butterfly, where Hotel Women edges forward with a numb madness. They seem to have little to say to one another. But then, together on the page, with their serried lines and their stories, two skyscrapers of words, they fuse into an image that Koestenbaum, as a New York writer, may have had in mind all along.