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 explores issues of colour and gender. Image: Gallerystock

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)