When Junot Diaz calls your writing “utterly extraordinary” and “the read of the year”, you hardly need me to say anything more about it. But when have I ever let a little thing like enough having already been said stop me from saying more? And, making it about me?
I am ashamed to confess that prior to a number of book-sites “best of 2013” lists, Hilton Als existed only on the periphery of my literary-awareness. I could probably have told you – if pressed – that he wrote for The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, but I could not have said with certainty what of his I had read.
I can tell you now. Only, I can’t.
I can’t because Hilton Als (GO TO HIS WEBSITE – CLICK HERE) has a voice like no other. You have not read anything like White Girls before. It does not fit into a niche or genre. It is not easy. It demands of you that you think, that you feel, that you question and process and allow yourself to be moved.
White Girls is like a lover you didn’t expect to have, doing things to you that you have never had done before, taking you to that place at the edge, the limit of your nerve endings, past the hum and thrum to the scream and the shake and sensations so strong that what is left when Als has finished with you is an exhausted numbness, a pleading for time, a moment in which to catch your breath and rest your weary mind. And then you pick up White Girls and start again from the beginning.
And as it is with that unexpected lover, the experience is personal. Als is inside your head and buttons are pushed, but those buttons are private. I cannot in the allotted space explain to you how Als’ recounting of particular kinds of love – love affairs of mis-matched soul-mates – brought me to tears, both in the opening piece, Tristes Tropiques, and in the next to last piece, You and Whose Army?. Listen:
Lucien: Baldwin’s Swiss piece carried over from Paris, where they met in the early nineteen fifties, in the days of cafes and such. And as is the case with most relationships in which queens fall in love with someone so pointedly different – which is to say someone who is essentially straight – Lucien loved Jimmy but didn’t want him.
… and …
We can not see things on purpose for just so long. Later, Cancer Bitch asked Lucien how he could put his body in a situation that wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, meaning how could he separate his body from his mind, what people laughingly refer to as their desire – how could he put his body, which eventually became her body, in the way of Jimmy’s cock? After all, she didn’t have a cock, or much of one to speak of. And Lucien said, What makes you think any of those things are separate? Jimmy loved me.
Oh god. Oh fuck. That first sentence ALONE is worth a lifetime, “We can not see things on purpose for just so long.” It is genius. Pure truth so true it hurts stabs like something too cold but so delicious I can’t stop ouch fuck me brain freeze genius. Like Joan Didion’s first sentence in Play It As It Lays genius. (And, by the way, Als quotes Didion in his New Yorker review of Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie latest Broadway revival – you see where I am going with this – Hilton and I, we are – wait – back to HIM) Oh he gets me. By getting Jimmy and Lucien. Oh my truth writ large. And unwritten. Unsaid, still. My Lucien(s) not so agile of tongue. Well, wait. I mean – you see? I can’t SAY what I mean. But, Mr. Als, he can. He has. He did. And that it happened to James Baldwin. And that Hilton Als has written with such clarity about it. And what is even more clear is that he, too, has been there. Not done that doing that done for so not that why can’t it be that I am done. Well. Yes. Truth.
He knows truth. listen:
Since the root function of language is to control the world through describing it and most Americans are embarrassed by their will to do so, language is made palpable by being nice.
From a piece about Louise Brooks. Yes. I know. And how to tell you what it meant to me that he made reference to Daisy and Violet Hilton. Montgomery Clift. Flannery o’Connor. Truman Capote. Lily Tomlin. LouLou de la Falaise, the Gaiety Theatre … and so much more.
But, not the point that he takes note of the same cultural markers that make up my emotional and autobiographical frame of reference – no. The point is that he makes me think about them and see them in new and different ways. No. The point is that the “new and different” ways in which he makes me see and think about them have been nascent – germinating but unable to emerge.
Hilton Als writes truths you’ve always known but never knew you knew; he exposes, uncovers, reveals, like magic, with words, syllable by syllable, weaving spells of syntactical brilliance that open sesame your mind in entirely new ways and show you who you are; who we are, why it is what it is.
Genius. Read it. NOW.