Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hilton Als, _White Girls_

HAVING READ ALS'S reviews here and there for many years, I expected to enjoy this, and some of it I had already read, but I was not at all prepared for anything as ambitious and outside-the-box as the two longer pieces here, "You and Whose Army?" and "Tristes Tropiques."

"You and Whose Army?" seems for a while to be a short story written in the voice of an actress who does vocal overdubs for porn, but then we tumble to the speaker's being Richard Pryor's sister...and then, about the time we realize, "oh, he's re-working Woolf's 'Shakespeare's Sister' passage," we hit a major dismantling of Woolf... and a far from wholly undeserved one, since Woolf has tended to get a free pass on the more rebarbative observations about servants and her Jewish in-laws that show up in her letters and journals. Things only accelerate from there.

Even more inventive and audacious is "Tristes Tropiques," about a... friend? companion? one hardly knows what to designate Als's relationship with the person he calls SL (for "Sir or Lady") in this sustained essay of not quite ninety pages; Als needs that much room to give us the dimensions of this relationship, and by the end of the essay you will know a lot about that relationship while still not having a name tag for it. The references and allusions throughout tend to be esoterically private, completely transparent only to a handful of people, one guesses, but as with James McCourt the insider-liness of the piece somehow manages to be enchanting rather than off-putting.

"Tristes Tropiques" ought to become a stable of ethnic, gender, and sexuality courses all over this land of ours--probably too much to hope for, but who knows?

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