Hilton Als' new book asks what white girls, gay black men have in common

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''White Girls," the latest book from New Yorker critic Hilton Als, has been called a book of essays by more than a few reviewers. That sounds right, but misses the full ambition of the work. It's a slim novel of 13 stories that still manages to be as much about twins as the titular "white girls."

Mr. Als' central conceit is that the marginalization and discrimination white girls endure in a masculine world enjoys a special resonance with that suffered by gay black men. For Mr. Als, being a "white girl" is not a concrete demographic category, but a way of being and a way of being perceived. Being perceived similarly by heterosexual males connects these black boys and white girls in a kind of "twinship" and positions them in similar situations within the masculine world.

By Hilton Als.
McSweeney's ($24).

If everyone had a long-lost twin, what would each pair be like? A matching set? Magnetically attracted opposites? Partners on a seesaw? Or a cliche of a Gemini: of two minds about everything? It is that sort of contradiction, "twinning" and double defining, that is Mr. Als' project in the text.

Mr. Als employs a kind of creative nonfiction: based on real events for the most part, and significantly composed of his brand of musing, allusion-packed arts criticism, but adapted and fictionalized. His theme casts the white girl as familiar, beautiful, non-oppressive, savvy about appearances, and often paired.

Each story uses a facet of that theme to describe what it feels like to be a familiar, desired, misunderstood "other." Mr. Als peels apart segments of the worlds of art, fashion, writing, pop music and literature piece by piece, somehow combining the layered portraits into the full implication of a novel -- an episodic one, complete in each section, but combining to form a greater whole.

The book maintains the structure of an essay collection, though. There's a table of contents, not a list of chapters. His largely reportorial piece on rapper Eminem's childhood precedes his remembrance of comedian Richard Pryor, but both follow the piece that opens the book, his close-focus relationship diary, "Tristes Tropiques."

Flannery O'Connor's work is given close attention, even as the imagined internal motivations of Truman Capote are laid out. Each is, entwined with a facet of white girlhood, and in looking at each, Mr. Als explodes the category over time. Thematically inventive, it's an ambitious compromise between the essays of Joan Didion and the great short story cycles of Sherwood Anderson.

If that is overpraise, it is not by much. Mr. Als gets a surprising amount of mileage out of that expansive idea of "twinness," and his own playful, contradictory critical erudition. The stories collectively explore an odd but commonly expressed aspect of loneliness and lovelessness: that many people often feel as though they are missing a twin they've never met.

In a sense, "White Girls" is a twin text unto itself. Each piece functions as an essay/story, but also as a confession/critique, because Mr. Als' voice and perspective is so central throughout. The whole attempts simultaneously to be about everything gendered, attractive, and artful about being treated as a white girl. Mr. Als holds a mirror up to the image of white girls and shows the reader Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michael Jackson. It's also a book that at times seems to be about everything other than its title in an intriguing way.

As a gay West Indian New Yorker who came of age steeped in the arts and media ephemera of the New York City in the '70s, Mr. Als has a unique perspective on what can be learned about pairing, about love, and about the outsider identity that comes from a writer's perspective.

In short, "White Girls" sets out to define what is and what is next to what is, by using the most familiar "other" in the American landscape, the white female. It is a book that rewards rereading if not requires it, but that rewards the investment amply, if not twofold.


Philip A. Stephenson writes about lifestyle for Quartz, the Atlantic's digital business news site. He teaches in the media culture department at the College of Staten Island. Follow him at @phantomath.

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