IN ONE OF HER STORIES, Grace Paley describes a character whose random remark “like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart.” You could say the same of Hilton Als’s sentences, except their mode of entry is the eye, and they don’t stop halfway. This makes them sound long, and some of them are, but their salient feature isn’t length so much as sinuosity and penetration. Often, there’s a cruel hook at the end, as in these from his latest collection, White Girls:
These laws lead to a deep emotional confusion about the “good” since most Americans are suspicious of language and spend a great deal of time and energy on Entertainment and Relaxation in an attempt to avoid its net result: Reflection. (“The Women”)
I was an I, an opera of feeling with a very small audience, a writer of articles about culture but with no real voice, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a dream of love growing ever more expansive because it was impossible, especially in the gay bars I sometimes frequented in Manhattan, where AIDS loved everyone up the wrong way, or in a way some people weren’t surprised by, particularly those gay men who were too indifferent to be sad — 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: friend’s shirt collars getting bigger; still, there was this to contend with: his coughing and wheezing in the little room off your bedroom in Brooklyn because TB was catching, your friends didn’t want you to catch it, loving a man was catching, your friends didn’t want you to get it; his skin was thin as onionskin, there was a lesion, he couldn’t control his shit, not to mention the grief in his eyes, you didn’t want to catch that; those blue eyes filled with why? (“Tristes Tropiques”)
“I’d like to fuck some truth into Suicide Bitch, if I could get it up. I could tell her a thing or two, while I humped her, about what Shakespeare’s sister really felt like, my hot breath on her dead white face, saying: I lived, this is what happened, all of life is imagined and made into art so that I can bear it. (“You and What Army?”)
True, the last example is more than one sentence. It appears in what may be a short story or a fictional essay. The speaker is an unnamed, and maybe apocryphal, sister of Richard Pryor’s. Suicide Bitch is Virginia Woolf, and the selection is the climax of a critique — the narrator’s or Als’s — of A Room of One’s Own.
Als often launches his signature sentences with shorter ones, as if turning a crank until the snake begins to play out on its own, each repetition of a word or phrase (in the section below, there are more nevers than in Lear’s soliloquy over Cordelia’s body) signaling another turn that takes the device that much closer to its destination — a masterpiece of engineering that does its job without lasers or motor, just the mechanically amplified energy of the user’s hand:
Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being. She avoided explaining the impetus behind her emigration from Barbados to Manhattan. She avoided explaining that she had not been motivated by the same desire for personal gain and opportunity that drove most female immigrants. She avoided recounting the fact that she had emigrated to America to follow the man who eventually became my father, and whom she had known in his previous incarnation as her first and only husband’s closest friend. She avoided explaining how she had left her husband — by whom she had two daughters — after he returned to Barbados from England and the Second World War addicted to morphine. She was silent about the fact that, having been married once, she refused to marry again. She avoided explaining that my father, who had grown up relatively rich in Barbados and whom she had known as a child, remained a child and emigrated to America with his mother and his two sisters — women whose home he never left. She never mentioned that she had been attracted to my father’s beauty and wealth partially because those were two things she would never know. She never discussed how she had visited my father in his room at night, and afterward crept down the stairs stealthily to return to her own home and her six children, four of them produced by her union with my father, who remained a child. She never explained that my father never went to her; she went to him. (“The Women”)
This isn’t just virtuosity. Als uses his longest and most syntactically coiled sentences to pursue conditions or states of being that are elusive to the onlooker and baffling even to those who enact them, deforming themselves to meet expectations they may never be conscious of, emanating from people they may not love or even know or from a society as remote as the sun, and as necessary and inimical. In the title essay of his 1999 The Women, he retraced the tortuous process by which his mother abandoned her authentic self in exchange for the only identity her adoptive country could accord a woman of her color and class:
By now, the Negress has come to mean many things. She is perceived less as a mind than as an emotional being. In the popular imagination, she lives one or several cliche-ridden narratives. One narrative: she is generally colored, female, and a single mother, reduced by circumstances to tireless depression and public “aid,” working off the books in one low-paying job after another in an attempt to support her children — children she should not have had, according to tax-paying, law-abiding public consensus. Like my mother. Another narrative: she can be defined as a romantic wedded to despair, since she has little time or inclination to dissemble where she stands in America’s social welfare system, which regards her as a statistic, part of the world’s rapacious silent majority. Like my mother. Another narrative: she gives birth to children who grow up to be lawless; she loves men who leave her for other women; she is subject to depression and illness. Her depression is so numbing that she rarely lets news of the outside world (television news, radio news, newspapers) enter her sphere of consciousness, since much of her time is spent fording herself and her children against the news of emotional disaster she sees day after day in the adult faces surrounding the faces of her children, who, in turn, look to her to make sense of it all. Like my mother.
A writer who wants to give voice to things that resist being spoken of either has to invent a language — the route taken by psychoanalysts from Freud to the impenetrable Lacan — or use the one he knows elliptically, allusively, aphoristically. Kafka did this, and so did Walter Benjamin, imagining history as an angel trying to repair the wreckage made by the wind that relentlessly bears it forward. It’s what Joan Didion and Eula Biss do. Als belongs to this lineage (or belongs to it half the time, when writing his labyrinthine personal essays; his criticism — which appears regularly in The New Yorker — is more declarative, as we want criticism to be). He writes about the interstices of race, gender, desire, and taste, and from within them. These are places where the familiar binaries — black and white, male and female, gay and straight — are as obsolete as VHS tapes: where Truman Capote, Als writes, can be said to have become a woman in 1947, the year his notoriously fuckable portrait first pouted on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Where Marshall Mathers became black by articulating the resentments of Detroit’s white trash. Where the category “white girls” may encompass not only Louise Brooks and Flannery O’Connor but also Malcolm X. Where Hilton Als, a self-identified queer African-American man finds his “corny and ancient ‘other half’” in SL, a straight African-American man who loves white women and once lived with a bunch of them on a lesbian separatist commune. Some of these ambiguities are embodied in the initials Als gives him: they stand for Sir Lady.
Als may reject binaries, but he also longs for them. “I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are.” “Tristes Tropiques,” the longest essay in this ferocious, incandescent, and intermittently bewildering collection, is an extended meditation — though that feels like too sedate a word — on solitude and belonging. The first is what makes love necessary; the second is what love offers. When you belong to somebody long enough, you become him, as, in the course of their 30-year friendship, Als became more and more like SL until their friendship ended. At the same time, you remain achingly conscious of the space between you, the mysterious treasure the other will not, maybe cannot, grant you, which in SL’s case might be sex or the undivided attention anyone gives the object of one’s desire, since what SL desired was women. Being denied in this manner sometimes drove Als crazy, but it may also be what kept his and SL’s “we” from collapsing back into an “I.” (That at the time of writing this Als was once again an I isn’t due to collapse but rupture.) Another possible explanation is that the one time before when Als was part of a we, he saw his partner’s remains stuffed into a black garbage bag and hauled away, this being “how the city’s health care workers dealt with the first AIDS victims, stuck them in garbage bags like imperfect pieces of couture.”
The metaphor Als uses to convey this tension is that of twins. He and SL have them on the brain. In the course of this 84-page essay, there are riffs on the twins in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, the Siamese twins in the trashy ’50s film Chained for Life, the language-inventing twins in the documentary Poto and Cabengo, the blonde twin physical therapists in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, who provoke Sissy Spacek’s character to wonder if “maybe they … switch back and forth. You know, one day, Peggy’s Polly; another day, Polly’s Peggy.” Part of the pleasure of reading White Girls is its range of cultural reference. It’s as if Als had a funnel in the top of his head and the entire world of representation — literary, cinematic, visual, musical — were pouring into it, constantly, to be recombined and aerated and sprayed back out, as from a magnificent baroque fountain with spigots strategically planted in the mouths of dolphins and the penises of pissing cherubs.
Counterposed to Als’s obsession with twins is his interest in solitaries — artists whose loneliness may have arisen from their genius or, alternatively, may have been that genius’s source. An obvious example is Flannery O’Connor. (Als calls his essay on her “The Lonesome Place.”) She was a Southerner who probably couldn’t have existed very long outside the South but viewed it and its values with the quizzical remove of a Martian — or, in Als’s stunning metaphor, of the “frizzled” chicken she owned as a child and trained to walk backward: “staring at others as she removed herself from them.” He’s astute in recognizing that her great subject is Southern whiteness chafing against its debt — cultural, moral, existential — to Southern blackness. Among O’Connor’s great achievements was her refusal to portray black characters as victims or exemplars, just as people, as rigid and preening and hypocritical as their white counterparts, though rarely as stupid.
Michael Jackson’s loneliness, in Als’s reading, was intertwined with his queerness, the thing he had to keep secret from the rest of his father-tyrannized, Jehovah’s-Witness family and from his bitterly homophobic culture. In black inner cities like Gary, Indiana, homosexuality was viewed as a kind of whiteness, “a pollution further eroding the already decimated black family.” Maybe that’s why Jackson began bleaching his skin; according to Als, his black gay fans were already referring to him as “a white woman.” In his songs and stage act — and his increasingly bizarre private life — concealment alternates with confession. He goes on highly publicized dates with Brooke Shields and Tatum O’Neal, but the songs he writes for women — “Muscles,” “I’m Coming Out” — are about wanting men. The love songs he writes for himself are more ambivalent, none more so than the 1991 “In the Closet.” You can fault Als for viewing Jackson’s later career chiefly as an expression of his pathology (John Jeremiah Sullivan is more generous and nuanced), but you can’t dispute the sorrowful eloquence of his conclusion:
In the end, the chief elements of his early childhood — his father, his blackness, the church, his mother’s silence — won, and the prize was his self-martyrdom: the ninety-pound frame; the facial operations; the dermatologist as the replacement family; the disastrous finances; the young boys loved and then paid off. Michael Jackson died a long time ago; it’s just taken years for anybody to notice.
The finest of Als’s journalistic portraits included in this collection is his New Yorker profile of Richard Pryor. It begins with an account of a 1973 routine he performed with Lily Tomlin on her short-lived network TV show, an account so rich, humorous, and vivid that you see the sketch, a word that does no service to what is really a short play, unfold before your eyes, complete with the snow and wavy lines of old video. Actually, you don’t see it so much as you remember it, even if you never saw it before. What follows is an open-hearted, heart-breaking assessment of the comic’s life and artistry, his vulnerability and ferocity, the need that made women, and especially white women, fall in love with him, and the contempt he visited on them for giving him what he wanted. Als gets what made Pryor great in spite of his pandering movies and the distracting spectacle of his self-destructiveness. In doing so, he articulates the predicament of practically every black artist in America:
The subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought: first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and, second, because it has generally been assumed to have only one story to tell — a story of oppression that plays on liberal guilt. The writers behind the collective ur-text of blackness — James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison — all performed some variation on the theme. Angry but distanced, their rage blanketed by charm, they lived and wrote to be liked. Ultimately, whether they wanted to or not, they in some ways embodied the readers who appreciated them most — white liberals.
Richard Pryor was the first black American spoken-word artist to avoid this. Although he reprised the history of black American comedy — picking what he wanted from the work of great storytellers like Bert Williams, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, LaWanda Page, and Flip Wilson — he also pushed everything one step further. Instead of adapting to the white perspective, he forced white audiences to follow him into his own experience. Pryor didn’t manipulate his audiences’ white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck.
None of my (lackadaisical) research discloses whether Pryor really had a sister who worked in show business. Like her brother, the unnamed narrator of “You and What Army,” the long concluding story that constitutes the second pillar of this book, makes her living talking dirty — in her case, doing voice-overs for porn films. “My voice goes both ways,” she brags. “Male and female. My mind goes both ways, too.” This is a conservative figure. In the pages that follow, she articulates a philosophy of porn acting; discusses the difficulty of performing black and Latino characters (“Not to get all Mary McLeod Bethune about it, but since those people are looked at in the wrong way most of the time, they can’t fuck in a way that lends itself to the viewer’s imagination”); explains her aforementioned antipathy to Virginia Woolf (“To me, her life and work taste as insulting as toe jam not looked after before the foot is shoved in some unsuspecting lover’s mouth”); and, most dazzlingly, recreates an apocryphal conversation between Diana Sands, an African-American actress of the 1960s, and James Baldwin, in whose plays Sands acted and whose lover she briefly married. “The church was my escape,” Baldwin tells Sands:
This is a convenient phrase. Wait. The church was and wasn’t different from home. There was home, there was the church, and there was the street, all filled with black people. And how could you not look at them and see Jesus, his Jesus hair, the thorns in it wound tightly in nigger hair piled correct under a picture hat? Negroes high-stepping into eternity, not even seeing the blood dripping before their very eyes? Flies sticking to the blood, can’t wash their face because the Jesus blood has burned a hole in it, Jesus rays of acceptance and sorrow over the acceptance coming out of the hole? You can’t see anything else if you stay, and you can’t not stay, because you’re a child aspiring to be Jesus but yourself, forgiveness gouging out your face. But to say any of that is to be exiled by the very people you love.
Who knows if Baldwin ever said anything like that? It reads like something he might have said in that famously caressing voice, gazing hypnotically at his listener with those eyes so vast and full of light they might have been adapted for life underground. The power of Als’s writing is also one of its weaknesses: for a little while, he can make you believe almost anything. I couldn’t begin to count the things White Girls made me believe. But a lot of his claims fold under investigation (is The Autobiography of Malcolm X really a secret document of mother-hatred, and is that the real reason for its popularity?), and I have yet to get the connection between Baldwin, Richard Pryor’s sister, and an actress whose premature death earns her the nickname Cancer Bitch. And I still feel cheated that before this gorgeous wreck of an essay ends, Baldwin and Sands are swept offstage to be replaced by Gary and Fran, a wretched couple who have nothing in common but his despondent optimism and her contempt for it.
Twins sometimes have trouble communicating with anybody outside the dyad. Maybe they just can’t be bothered to. The identical twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy called each other Poto and Cabengo and up until the age of eight spoke a private language that was unintelligible to anybody else, including their own father, who thought they were cognitively disabled. June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin English daughters of Caribbean immigrants, refused to speak to anyone else until their late teens, when they were institutionalized after being arrested for a series of thefts and arsons. The Silent Twins, as they were called “developed brutal skills of self-invention and cleaved to their own ferocious intimacy, their continually ‘amazed’ relationship with their other half.” The words are Als’s, from an essay called “We Two Made One” that appeared in The New Yorker in 2000. Curiously, it’s not included in this collection. In one of his funnier riffs (how often does a writer as good as Als also make you fall out of your chair with laughter?), he imagines what he and his chosen twin SL — “two colored men who were together and not lovers, not bums, not mad” — sounded like to their audiences: “Ooogga booga. Wittgenstein. Mumbo jumbo oogga booga, too, Freud, Djuna Barnes, a hatchi! Mumbo lachiniki jumbo Ishmael Reed and Audrey Hepburn.” (“Tristes Tropiques”)
There are moments in White Girls when he still seems to be speaking to his twin. When he’s speaking to us, he’s mesmerizing.