White Girls by Hilton Als: The physical effects of power on resistant bodies

These pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his b

White Girls
Hilton Als
McSweeney’s, 338pp, £14.82

This is not an easy book, though that shouldn’t stop you wanting it. It feels incendiary, like a box of fireworks that might go off in one’s hands. It’s beautiful and deeply intelligent, but also profoundly resistant to being simplified or boiled down. Indeed, it sometimes seems to have been written in a language of such density and opacity as to deliberately replicate the complexity of the ideas with which it tangles.

Hilton Als is the New Yorker’s theatre critic and White Girls his long-awaited second book, after 1998’s The Women. As the title suggest, this roving collection of essays is preoccupied with race and gender. But it will come as no surprise to regular Als readers that the idea of the white girl is not confined exclusively to the bodies of white women. Instead, he uses the concept to pry open larger issues of colour, masculinity, power and sexual desire. Tacking back and forth between memoir, profile and cultural criticism, his white girls include Michael Jackson, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Richard Pryor.

The opening three words, “Sir or Lady”, serve as the name of Als’s first subject, a beloved friend: the platonic twin by whose companionship and example the writer discovers and assembles his own self. “We were, in short,” he writes, “colored male Americans, a not easily categorisable quantity that annoyed most of our countrymen, black and white, male and female alike, since America is nothing if not about categories.”

Exploring these categories and particularly the places where they rupture under pressure has always been Als’s speciality, his special style. In a profile of Michael Jackson, he notes that in the 1970s, before the singer’s physical transformation, black gay men “began to refer to Jackson as ‘she’ and, eventually, ‘a white woman’ – one of the slurs they feared most, for what could be worse than being called that which you were not, could never be?” Later, discussing the black comedian Richard Pryor, he quotes one of Pryor’s ex-wives, who explains how women “saw themselves in him, in his not fitting in, the solitude of it all, and his willingness to be vulnerable as women are. And disenfranchised, of course, as women are.” There is a gap between these two statements, between solidarity and mutual mistrust, and it is to this space that Als applies his formidable attention.

Much of this necessitates looking at the body, and these pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his body and sets himself on fire: “And my smoldering chest smelled like a burned piece of meat . . . ‘Is there?’ I asked. ‘Is there what?’ someone asked. ‘Oh Lord, there is no help for a poor widow’s son, is there?’” This image and vernacular returns hard on an earlier essay on lynching, in which Als examines images of maimed and burned bodies while challenging the desire of white editors who pay him to look, to perform his distress, “to be a Negro on the page”.

Both these incidents also connect to one of Als’s most acute moments of observation. It occurs in a profile of André Leon Talley, the flamboyant creative director of US Vogue During a shoot, a white woman refuses to be photographed unless “André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy”. “None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.”

This ability to witness and record the physical effects of power on resistant bodies is combined with an almost incantatory knack for language. Als’s sentences are gorgeous, adorned, antagonistic, slippery and driven. As to what drives them, in a companion to the Pryor profile, he creates a monologue from the imagined point of view of Pryor’s sister, a voice-over artist for porn films. In between describing barebacking and money shots, she turns her ferocious gaze on “Suicide Bitch” – Virginia Woolf and the casual racism of her work. “Listen,” she says, “my job depends on my physical invisibility but never my absence. My voices are real because I believe in them enough to apply my interior voice to their reason. I resent Suicide Bitch. I resent her talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room.”

From Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, to Marshall Mathers III, the boy who became Eminem, all Als’s subjects have been spoken about at one time or another as if they weren’t in the room. In taking up their stories, White Girls stands as both a work of reparation and a call to arms: an act of audacious magic that summons voices where there seemed to be none.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)

White Girls explores issues of colour and gender. Image: Gallerystock

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496