White Girlsby Hilton Als Published 05 Nov 2013
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White Girls, Hilton Als’s first book since The Women fourteen years ago, finds one of The New Yorker's boldest cultural critics deftly weaving together his brilliant analyses of literature, art, and music with fearless insights on race, gender, and history. The result is an extraordinary, complex portrait of "white girls," as Als dubs them—an expansive but precise category that encompasses figures as diverse as Truman Capote and Louise Brooks, Malcolm X and Flannery O’Connor. In pieces that hairpin between critique and meditation, fiction and nonfiction, high culture and low, the theoretical and the deeply personal, Als presents a stunning portrait of a writer by way of his subjects, and an invaluable guide to the culture of our time.
"White Girls" Reviews
It feels cheap to use adjectives such as "stunning," and "remarkable" to describe White Girls when Hilton Als does so much more with language in his work. The opening essay, "Tristes Tropiques," pushes language past its tipping point and creates some new, dazzling purpose with it. Simply put, this isn't how language is supposed to work, and yet it does. Readers are first thrown into an autobiographical investigation concerning Als' relationships - from friends, lovers, family, and the like - but this is no mere existential query about people's affect on one another. Als' words generate a hazy, often dream-like interpretation of the self in contemporary times, one that draws upon looming questions of race, gender, and sexuality in the late 20th century. Others have compared his style to stream-of-consciousness, but Als does much more than that; he has tight control over his meaning and purpose, deftly weaving between his memories of the past and his larger critical interpretation of those moments. It's hard to accurately articulate exactly what he does, because it defies any easy categorization. Is it autobiography? Is it cultural criticism? It's both in some remarkable format that must be experienced to be believed. From this first essay, Als moves into a series of essays revolving around cultural criticism, each one a close reading in literature, film, or another cultural medium. It's been quite some time since a book of criticism grabbed me the way Als' does; in a somewhat over-used cliche, I simply could not put the book down.
This should have been two volumes. The first essay is just so completely different than the rest of the book in every way, McSweeney's really should have made it a standalone book. In fact, I'm just going to review it on its own as if that's how it had been, because I'm going to remember it that way anyhow. After that I'll do a gloss of the rest of the book, because that's what each section deserves.
This slim little 95-page flit absolutely destroyed me. Destroyed. Me. I was so dazzled and ruined I couldn't see straight.
I actually read this on a sunny wintertime beach vacation, because for some reason I was expecting Hilton to be a wry old sassy queen, dishing archly about the silly tawdriness of the world. I was not expecting this utterly gutting pathos, the yawning horror of dismay and despair in the face of mortality, the essential existential howl at the center of being alive.
1992 was the year my beloved K died from AIDS, and I spent 1990, 1991, and 1992 in a kind of couple daze. I was an I, an opera of feeling with a very small audience, a dream of love growing ever more expansive because it was impossible, especially in the gay bars I sometimes frequented, where AIDS loved everyone up the wrong way—in any case night sweats were a part of the conversation people weren't having in those bars, in any case, taking your closest friend in because he was shunned by his family was part of the conversation people weren't having, still, there was this to contend with: that friend's shirt collars getting bigger; still, there was this to contend with: his coughing and wheezing in the little room off your bedroom because TB was catching, your friends didn't want you to get it; not to mention the grief in his eyes, you didn't want to catch that; those blue eyes filled with why? causing your heart to look away, a chid's question you couldn't answer: what happened to our plans, why was the future happening so fast?
I stayed at a friend's house, it was near the bay and, at night, not sleeping, I could hear the waves, it was as Virginia Woolf corny as that, they lapped up to the shore of Mrs. Vreeland's illness, one after another, becoming myself as the world inevitably becomes yourself as you lay there in love, and your love is dying.
Love and loss and AIDS and death. Sickness and defiance and sexuality and sex. Family and intellect and twinning and grief and rage. Reading this is like being punched, repeatedly, by beauty and horror and fury and sorrow all at once. Devastating and brilliant and awful and true.
The rest of the book
Meh. These essays are all smart, but they're very rangy and often bloated and generally not that gripping. There's lit theory about Capote and McCullers and Welty and O'Connor, racial theory about Malcolm X's mother and Hilton's brother, musical theory about Eminem and Michael Jackson. There's queerness and blackness and drag and Richard Pryor. But it's all diffuse and intellectualized and rendered at a deep remove—nothing comes close to the trenchant pierce of Book 1.
So the point is: buy White Girls immediately, and read "Tristes Tropiques" immediately, and cry and wail and rend your garments. And then maybe stick the book in your bathroom and dip into it once in a while when the mood strikes you, but don't expect too much of it.
This essay collection is a piece-by-piece, often focused on celebrities, dense treatise on identity. Als deals with famous figures (Eminem, Michael Jackson, Malcolm X, Truman Capote, and most in-depthly, Richard Pryor) through the lens of gender, sexuality and race - most often using each lens to draw a further microscopic view on the other. His views are often contrary to popular opinion, or introduce new ways of looking at figures that have already been intensely scrutinized, and his voice exists in a pre-sensitive place: Als says what he wants. The title, an eye-catcher for sure, reflects on his ability (as a gay black man) to relate to white girls (it's a lot more complicated than that), and this in turn parallels a lot of the collections themes: Eminem as black; Truman Capote as a woman, etc. The star of this show is the two essays on Richard Pryor, however, one from the perspective of his sister. Sprawling masterworks that paint a vivid picture on a sociological, psychological, political, artistic, and anthropological level. I feel smarter for having read this book.
I am just gonna have to accept that there is a certain kind of writing, a certain kind of way of making art and text, that just does not do it for me. At all. Because I don't consume media to become intimate with the creator of the media I'm consuming. I want to get into the actual media itself. I don't go, oh look at the creative person's intelligence, their emotions, their sensitivity and cleverness. I don't care. At all. I know this is at odds with the way some people, the tasteful people, prefer to consume media. For them, watching movies and TV and reading books is, on some level, enjoying the sweetness of a relationship, so the author, the auteur is important because that is the person they are having a relationship with. So they know writers' biographies! They decide to watch a director's movies without knowing what it's about beforehand! They have listened to a band's entire catalog, even the shit albums! I cannot understand this, beyond having a crush on someone's image, because come on, that is all that you are really doing, right? I notice these people also have the most difficulty with video games. ANYWAY. This book is for those people. This book is nothing but intimacy with Hilton Als! Must be like candy to them.
I didn't really care though. I actually prefer discussions on race, gender, pop culture, etc. to state their purpose and ideas explicitly, like in academic writing. Or as themes in straight forward fiction.
Extraordinary, genre-bending cultural criticism. Along with Packer's The Unwinding, the best non-fiction book of 2013. This is a masterpiece gorgeous,
This is the type of book that you'd probably really like if you were really into deconstructions of race/gender/sexuality/class but didn't want another "standard" deconstructions of those things. Instead of a "here's the critical theory background we all have let's look at these people" he bounces around subjects and attacks them from a bunch of different intellectual angles. So like, I get what Als is doing and why its appealing to highbrow cultural critics but it doesn't appeal to me.
Part of the issue is that the work is so personal and so you spend a lot of time in Als' viewpoint, but the dude seems like he'd be zero fun to hang out with; in his writing he comes off totally self-serious. Like, the only time he'd express that he found something humorous is to give a wry grin at a clever turn of phrase or an unintentional irony, but he'd never like, actually laugh at a joke. Again, that's mostly me and my preference for essays.
Another reason that is that i simply lack a lot of the background of the subjects he's writing on so a lot of it is lost on me--it's very pretentious in the sense that a lot of the essays are founded on the pretense that you've read stuff about these people already and are already part of the conversation. I'd probably like the book more if he wrote an essay on figures more relevant to my pop culture experience.
So yeah, this book would probably be good for a person who likes the above-mentioned things, but it was a real slog for me.