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September 02, 2007|Karrie Higgins

When contemplating the idea of a hotel -- as way station, the opposite of the familiar -- poet and novelist Wayne Koestenbaum remembers seeing a cafeteria custard pie "trembling behind glass . . . offering itself." In his new book, "Hotel Theory" (Soft Skull Press: 178 pp., $16 paper), he writes, "To be in hotel is to float, or to tremble, like just-set custard."

Inspired by reading Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time," Koestenbaum attempts to do what the German philosopher said is the "business" of philosophy: "to protect the power of the most elemental words." He searches exhaustively -- in poetry, literature, language, letters, dreams, cinema, obituaries and Chopin's music -- for glimpses of what he calls "hotel consciousness."

But his real achievement is in the book's structure. "Hotel Theory" is two books in one, printed side by side in vertical columns: a fragmentary theory of hotels on the left and "Hotel Women," a novella starring Lana Turner and Liberace, on the right. You don't read either one so much as check in and out. Your eyes feel drawn to the darker font of "Hotel Women," to the lure of the actress and the entertainer. Yet the theory haunts the novella, inviting you to jump back and forth. At one point, Liberace himself even considers a move across the street to "Hotel Theory" but decides against it.

"Hotel Women" isn't so much an independent novella as it is an enactment of hotel consciousness. Throughout the story, the articles "the" "a" and "an" never appear -- Koestenbaum's refusal to distinguish definite from indefinite. The effect is to transform all things into ideas: One does not sit in a chair; one sits in chair. So when "Hotel Women" ends first, leaving "Hotel Theory" alone to dissolve into fragments, Koestenbaum's project is complete: The hotel no longer exists; what is left is "hotel." *

-- Karrie Higgins

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