Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s obsession with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—as chronicled in Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon—goes beyond mere appreciation and into something one might call clinical. In a free-associative mine-sweep of camp sensibility and pop-culture aesthetics, Koestenbaum examines and re-examines every imaginable aspect of Jackie’s public persona. While many of his methods might be dismissed as faddish hooey, Koestenbaum’s urge to deconstruct does force a consideration of celebrity.

There is an aura surrounding the famous that makes us want to meet them and know them and have them, if not in our beds then at least in our Rolodexes. Stars represent an elevation of human existence—they seem to promise that life can be led on a much higher plane—and outsiders want to join their strange orbits.

Jackie Under My Skin is at the very least an intelligent and entertaining meditation on one such untouchable existence. By examining the appearances of “Jackie O” in pop culture and the personal experiences of Jackie-watchers such as himself, Koestenbaum reveals the ways a pop icon functions in American society. He rightly relies not on his own reporting about the “real” Jackie, but on Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography and the magazine Photoplay. These are the sort of venues that create sensationalized figures like “Jackie O” and “Liz” and “Di.”

Koestenbaum acknowledges that Jackie’s remarkable star power comes from no accomplishment of her own. It’s what she signifies that counts. As the celebrated object of media fascination, she is the “Other” defining the “Self.” She is the “expensive, invisible end point” of the history of hysterics, a lineage that began with Freud’s Anna O. (Many of these interpretations say more about some traditional ideal of womanhood than about anything unique to Jackie.) Koestenbaum also believes that the bereaved Jackie represents national anxiety about the assassination of the head of state. By surviving JFK, he writes, Jackie became our fetish object, protecting us from “losing our head.” Here he has a point: Jackie’s death represented not only the end of an era but the loss of a comforting figure, and the public grieved accordingly.

But, we must ask, does Koestenbaum really take himself seriously? The author, a Yale professor and poet who wrote The Queen’s Throat, a study of queer music theory, is obviously having fun; his brand of research is often described as “serious play”—or alternately as evidence of the demise of the university. Yet his is not the worst sort of lit-crit jargon. Despite a few miserable wordings (using “effect” as a verb, and composing phrases like “Jackie disorganizes me,” and “she resists language”), Koestenbaum manages to create an accessible work.

Like Andrew Ross writing about camp, Koestenbaum gives considered treatment to the product of a not-very-respected experience—fandom—and reveals a deep structure therein. His analysis of iconhood, if diffuse, at least points toward true insight. And if his many personal recollections are self-indulgent, they are also pertinent to the subject matter. Koestenbaum is, above all, a fan.

Unfortunately, Koestenbaum succeeds only in documenting, rather than explaining, Jackie’s psychological sway. She has produced, he writes, “a baffling array of images still requiring interpretation”: Jackie is fashion plate, presidential spouse, mother, and housewife, but she is also Circe, dominatrix, and decapitating Medusa. The “O” of Jackie O is her halo, her wedding band, her scarlet letter, the orgasm she never had with JFK, the naught that marks her as naughty, and herstraitjacket.

Then there are the loyal fan’s dreams of Jackie and the special affinity with celebrity that the dream self seeks: “If one were to compile a new Interpretation of Dreams,” Koestenbaum asks, “and were to align stars with symbolic properties, what would Jackie mean? (What would Tony Curtis? Mia Farrow? Ringo?)” He goes on to explain that the “keynote” of his dreams about Jackie is “imaginary complicity”: “Often, Jackie and I are huddled in conspiratorial conversation.” Jackie “recognizes” things about Koestenbaum, and begins interpreting his thoughts, rather than he interpreting hers. Here Koestenbaum hits on what it is we really want from our pop heroes: We want them as distinct symbols of rebellion or sexuality, but we also want them to acknowledge us. Koestenbaum makes vivid the tenuous position of the fan, whose fulfillment so depends on the denial of his object of fascination.

Koestenbaum’s explanations of all these Jackies make good reading. Indeed, the book’s 40 chapters—some as short as two pages—serve as a neat primer on critical thinking, with Jackie as backdrop; psychoanalytic theory, deconstruction, film theory, semiotics, and queer theory all come into play. (Given time, one might read just one chapter per night, like a Bible lesson.) Each bite-size essay is comparable to a petit four—which is, along with Chiclets and clip-on earrings, another item that Jackie calls to Koestenbaum’s mind. But the catalogs of Jackies and cocktail-party theories ultimately describe only her surface.

Room for skepticism about Jackie Under My Skin remains. Koestenbaum casts Jackie as a sublime creature, then unconvincingly attempts to locate the source of her sublimity. At one point he turns to Edmund Burke, an early theorizer of the sublime who found it in vast and scary things—huge mountains, yawning oceans, goblins, and deities—as well as things that were somewhat obscured. In Koestenbaum’s estimation, Jackie fills all Burke’s requirements: She is larger than life—in a sense, immortal—occupying more than her share of space in the national psyche. Her appearance could be considered frightening: her big head, with its painfully wide-spaced eyes, made her look “rapacious” in some photographs, Koestenbaum tells us. And she was often obscured, behind those big, bizarre sunglasses and head scarf. But is she sublime? Can she produce, as Burke put it, “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling?”

Interviewed in Artforum recently, Koestenbaum was asked for his thoughts on Susan Sontag. “Susan Sontag is sublime,” he replied. Could Koestenbaum really have meant that Sontag, too, inspires the kind of awe that one feels at the edge of the Grand Canyon? (Maybe Jackie O, but certainly not Susan Sontag!) His remark suggests that his play is indeed not serious at all—and that he is promiscuous with his language. Koestenbaum’s metaphors are clever and convenient, but not always reliable. He can only take his theoretical style so far, before it crumbles—like a stale petit four.