Hilton Als' "White Girls" is as much about white girls as the author's previous effort "The Women" was about femininity — which is to say quite a lot and not at all. Like its predecessor, "White Girls" is an inquiry into otherness, and by extension, commonality, what keeps us apart and also what brings us close.
"I see how we are all the same," Als writes in "Tristes Tropiques," the book's opening essay, "that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we're a series of mouths, and … every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love." These are the contradictions that Als, as a gay African American writer, has woven into the very center of his work.
"White Girls" is a collection of essays that blurs the line between criticism, memoir, even fiction and nonfiction — 13 takes on, among others, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Jackson, Louise Brooks and Truman Capote, all of whom represent the figure of the "white girl" in actual or invented ways.
It is Als' first book since "The Women" came out more than 15 years ago, and if you don't think this is momentous, think again. A staff writer for the New Yorker who also contributes to the Believer and the New York Review of Books, Als is one of the most consistently unpredictable and surprising essayists out there, an author who confounds our expectations virtually every time he writes.
"Tristes Tropiques" is a case in point, a 90-page examination of his relationship with a straight man identified only as SL ("Sir or Lady"), a bond both platonic and romantic, a kind of doubling (Als' concept) that leads to unexpected juxtapositions, personal and cultural.
There are whispers of James Baldwin: Als' description of his father — "When I was your age, I didn't like my father to hug me either," the older man tells him — brings to mind "Notes of a Native Son."
There is a sense of the futility of writing and also of its necessity. "What is writing but an I insisting on its point of view," Als writes, even as he acknowledges that "details … diminish me, or rather, the whole storytelling enterprise does, words limit things."
This is the most essential contradiction, that once we begin to frame something, to create a story or a set of meanings, we distance ourselves from the experience as it has been lived.
And yet, for Als, the critic's posture is not a way of stepping back from life; it is a matter of engaging with the world. Most of the pieces in "White Girls" use their subjects as a starting point, but the genius has to do with where Als goes from there.
Thus, Eminem (or Marshall Mathers, as Als refers to him, getting underneath his persona) is not just a white boy appropriating black music, nor is appropriation a particularly clarifying lens. "To say, as many critics have," Als writes in one of the book's many provocative passages, "that whites steal from blacks who originate important work in music or fashion is beside the point. … Unlike many of the whites he grew up with, Mathers never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn't feel white and privileged."
Als is not denying Mathers' whiteness, just saying that it's trumped by class, by economics, by his awareness of being on the outside looking in. It's a terrific point, and Als pushes it further by suggesting that "rap's dissonant sound … was as familiar and natural to the burgeoning artist as the short story form was to Flannery O'Connor." Notice what he does there: arguing not that rap and short fiction are the same (this would devalue both forms by forcing a false equivalency) but that for these artists, the drive to create comes out of a common otherness.
The O'Connor reference highlights another kind of doubling, since Als has already written about her in the book. What he's getting at is how these artists come together in his imagination, echoing one another and himself. This makes "White Girls" more than a collection of disparate pieces but rather a coherent portrait of Als' inner life.
The focus is privilege, who has it and who will never have it, and what those without it are supposed to do. As Als notes of Capote, "It is hard to garner privilege when you begin with none — for those who have to reach for it, it remains perpetually out of reach."
Als closes "White Girls" with two pieces on Richard Pryor, the second narrated by the late comedian's sister and echoing Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." "What if Shakespeare had a sister named Judith," Als asks, "and the sister's brilliance went unrecognized because she had to take care of everyone else?"
What Als is getting at in this long hybrid work (Is it fiction? Is it essay?) is the dilemma of the critic/observer, his own sense of reading meaning into the work and actions of those by whom he is compelled. Pryor is a vivid mirror: black, confrontational yet ultimately co-opted, a mirror for his audience's desire.
Als makes this explicit in the construction of the essay, which in tracing a bond between Pryor and his sister, echoes "Tristes Tropiques," with its portrait of the relationship between Als and SL.
On the one hand, this makes for structural symmetry — two extended essays, each about a kind of doubling, functioning as bookends. But even more, it highlights our need to see ourselves in others: the very reason Als (like all of us) is drawn to art.
Is such a concept a contrivance? Of course it is. But the point of this magnificent collection is that all our endeavors are contrivance and yet utterly essential just the same.
"This career — it is a handful of dust in the end," Als writes, referring (we must assume) to both his subjects and himself. "One may fixate on it as if it were not. Presumably this career safeguards one from having to read one's face and the mask behind it, which reveals, truly, what is in the mind and the quality of what is in the mind. When this mask cracks — underneath it, that is writing."
McSweeney's: 300, pp., $24