White Girls

Hilton Als

Just after I started reading this book, I had a conversation in which someone said that inaccessible art can’t possibly be good art, with a side note about how some people may appreciate art solely because they can’t immediately understand it as they assume it’s smarter than they are. The discussion partially came from me describing my struggle through The Luminaries, not entirely enjoying it, but finding the structure of it compelling from a technical standpoint. The essays in White Girls vary in their accessibility, and since I was reading primarily for entertainment, I skimmed through the ones that didn’t draw me in enough. In this opinion, it can’t be a “good” book, because it was too much work to read, the enjoyment too cerebral to be genuine. Yet I would be hard-pressed to take the philosophy that this book isn’t great just because of those parts. Provoking ideas are often not going to be easy to read, and Als challenges a lot in these essays, including the concept of how a profile should be written. A book of essays is often a tougher sell anyway — many times each one is better read as a singular entity, rather than the whole collection together in sequence.

Starting with a long one, a kind of memoir novella, Als explores friendships he’s had that are so close he calls them “twinships.” At one point he wonders of one of his twins, “Did I love her or want to be her? Is there a difference?” I could probably read this one several more times. There’s a lovely reflective yearning to it. The core of the book is largely comprised of profiles of cultural figures, including Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, and Vogue editor André Leon Talley. He writes a profile on Louise Brooks from her perspective. He also declares that Truman Capote became a woman in 1947, the year his photo for the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms was taken. Then there is one traditional profile of Richard Pryor followed by a fictional essay from the perspective of his sister before the book ends with a little piece on memory called “It Will Soon Be Here,” and the language and sadness here is just beautiful:

The wall surrounding memory misremembered is clean and wide and high, similar in effect to the wall one finds in certain airports in other countries, clean and wide and high like that, banking in or letting go those who want to remember clearly or don’t. Passengers coming or going in the field of memory are a tangle of arms and legs, hands, hearts, hair and minds that — if you do not stand too close or listen too carefully — speak a shared language, remarkable in its oppressive loneliness, its denial: What a horrible memory, and so forth. Regardless of where many of us believe we land — in that field encumbered by not too much baggage or entirely too much — we all come from the same place, which is a road rutted by experience so banal, nearly remarkable, that memory tricks us into remembrance of it again and again, as if experience alone were not enough. What are we to do with such a life, one in which we are not left alone to events — love, shopping, and so forth — but to the holocaust of feeling that memory, misremembered or not, imposes on us?