What an appropriate drink for this book–Cuban cafe con leche, in which rich dark coffee invades steamed milk little by little, you make the call in terms of how much and when, but like Ellison’s paint factory sequence in Invisible Man, one drop permanently recolors the whole liquid and you can’t remove the brown once that happens. It’s a velvety, mesmerizing drink, slightly bitter, just as Hilton Als’s prose is all of these things. It’s a bizarre book, sentences careening from one strange and discomforting idea to the next. He engages blackness, gayness, and maleness by insisting–through criticism, memoir, snark, and deep pain–that he finds his true identity when he’s whitest, straightest, and feminine. He extends Albert Murray’s “Omni-American” concept by making it weirder, by destabilizing its presumptions, by smudging its implied identity politics–this, even though Murray was railing against those kinds of politics. So fearless that I wonder if Als has any friends left after this book’s publication, White Girls nevertheless reveals a scared, scarred heart. He makes the personal political. No, that’s wrong. The book’s most radical, political act is reinserting idiosyncrasies and the sense of “I” to cultural criticism and memoir–and fusing those two–so that politics (which flattens and reduces individuals to generalized abstractions and generalized needs) are subsumed–when not dismissed altogether–by individual voice. Always challenging, always fresh, deeply unsettling in its morals and loves and fierce hates, White Girls keeps rewiring my brain and making me reassess, even when I wish Als would cut black girls (and black men like himself, like me) a little more slack and a little more empathy. Still, in his showing how white girls (actual & imagined, real figures & conceptualized racialized femininity) are a part of all of us, he also insinuates himself–gay black boys–into our heads. For how can white girls exist without black boys? We define ourselves by what we’re not but, in doing so, we prove that we are and are made by what we’re not. (One bit of offhand brilliance, about Flannery O’Connor: “…readings of this American master often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness. Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence–Southern blackness.”) This is heady stuff, exasperating and brilliant and jittery, all the heavier because Als writes like a fluid dream, all smoothness and silk even when his thoughts are anything but–and they’re always anything but. We are all a part of each other culturally, Als conveys, but he also conveys that this isn’t the unencumbered good that it’s advertised as.
My 33 1/3 book (pre-order)
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