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"The Anatomy of Harpo Marx": Singular Actor Singularly Celebrated 

Wednesday, Apr 4 2012
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Wednesday, April 11
Harpo Marx — that industrious nonsense-maker, that weirdly peripheral cynosure, that genius of the rambunctious nonsequitur — at last has the celebrant he deserves. In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Wayne Koestenbaum — that industrious poet, critic, and occasional sense-maker — catalogs every significant Harpo moment from the Marx Brothers' 13 movies, capturing the spirit and detail of the muted comic's performance and then working each through the wringer of cultural criticism. Like his subject, Koestenbaum here demonstrates little use for formality, and just slightly more for established forms, opting instead to pen squirrely, surprising notes rather than fully weighted essays.

That approach is thrilling: A paragraph on Harpo giving Margaret Dumont a push in the keister is subtitled "The Covert Political Necessity of Claiming That Harpo Is Butt-Centered." On Harpo seizing and hugging a football in Horse Feathers: "We call this a fetal position, but it is also a Pieta, a curlicue, an autophagia, an inward tunneling, like the leaf pattern on a Corinthian capital." On a man Koestenbaum spied at a bathhouse around the time he was writing about  At the Circus: "Meditatively, he rubbed medicinal ointment on his irritated penis, which had retreated, whether from timidity or distress, into a diminished nub." For every penetrating insight he offers, Koestenbaum chucks in free-associative treats, overreaching connections, chunks of autobiography, and reams of sharp and beautiful description. It's like he shoved his brain and a Marx Brothers box set into a woodchipper — and if you think you might enjoy that, you probably will.

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Alan Scherstuhl

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