A boy reads “Jabberwocky” for the first time and is troubled. There are words in the poem he doesn’t know. Words that aren’t like other words he hasn’t known in poems or stories before. He goes to a dictionary or asks a parent and discovers, even more troubling, there are words in the poem that Lewis Carroll…just made up. Apparently, you can do that, just…make up new words for new things and maybe those words stick in the language like “chortle” and maybe they don’t like “manxome” but either way, it can be done. A boy reads “Jabberwocky” and learns something about words. A boy sees a Van Gogh self-portrait in a book and is troubled. The brushstrokes are viral and the colors are viral and though it looks like a face, it doesn’t look like any face he’s ever seen. But it’s in a book and if it’s in a book it must be OK. He realizes that paintings aren’t required to look like their subjects. Artists can paint things that are not visual. A boy looks at a Van Gogh self-portrait and learns something new about art.
White Girls by Hilton Als is not a pensive essay collection. It is not meditative and if it’s critical or scholarly, it’s critical and scholarly in ways critics and scholars rarely are. White Girls is full of ideas and themes, but they are not approached the way you expect ideas and themes to be approached. Hilton Als pit-fights the shit out of them. Ringed by prisoners who don’t know whether to stop cheering or keep cheering, and guards with their guns and sunglasses and smirks, Als beats those ideas like they were Cool Hand Luke. And beats them, and beats them, and beats them, because there is always more in Luke, in racism, in courage, in love, in cowardice, in hate, in hubris, in straight white American male privilege, in empathy, in music, in comedy, in commodity, in Luke both good and bad than you can ever beat out, but you’re a brave exhausted prison pit dog and eventually you hit your word limit and carry your limp but still swinging opponent away and you didn’t win the fight and Luke didn’t win the fight and the spectators didn’t win the fight either. Nobody wins. Except for the guards, who win every fight by being born people who don’t go to jail.
Pit fight says “violence,” but the violence of White Girls is not angry, or maybe not hurtful, at least, not in the ways we’re used to. It is the violence of singing a whole album stuck in a traffic jam, the violence of three cups of coffee at three in the afternoon because you have a deadline on a project you don’t care about at a job you don’t care about but you care about the raise you might get if you crush this project, the violence of watching dawn after an all-night party with three new best friends you’ll never talk to again and a personal promise to really give it your fucking all this time. Chrysalis violence, both coming and going.
Since there is very little actual violence in the book, why do I see brutality here? Our culture associates confidence with strength, especially when it is the male gaze doing the associating, and it’s a short walk from “strength” to “violence,” and an even shorter walk if that “strength” is demonstrated by an African American man. White Girls does not ask “What is an essay?” or “What is non-fiction?” or “What is the role of the essayist in contemporary literature?” or any of the other persistent, perhaps required questions in “creative” non-fiction writing. Even when Als writes in the voice of Richard Pryor’s sister, the question of definition is elsewhere. No exploration of the role of the writer, of the voice of the writer, of the permissions an essayist has and does not have. There is an inherent swagger in not justifying your aesthetics and Als does not justify his aesthetics.
Their expression is their justification. Like Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and James Baldwin, Als confronts our world and tells us of that world in the voice it demands. Perhaps, that is what we ask of the essayist, to keep up with the demands of the changing world, to explain the now in the voice of the now. If fiction writes the expansion of cultural potential and poetry writes the achronological time and placeless place of consciousness, perhaps the essayist is our present voice; not the simulated present of trend writing, news reporting, opinionating, and punditry (though there are useful, productive, and important—or at least interesting—versions of all of those) but the real flesh-and-blood, it-might-cut-me-if-I-pick-it-up present we live through and can’t experience. The now writing that feels so now it hurts like now and fights like now.
Or maybe I see violence in White Girls because I feel like Als is punching me. The overarching other. The unifier of all the people in his essays. The catalyst and solvent of their relationships. The contract drafter. The check writer. Michael Jackson. Richard Pryor. Andre Leon Tally. Mrs. Louise Little. K. SL. Mrs. Vreeland. Truman Capote. Even Eminem, but differently from the others. Hilton Als. As a straight white American man, I am the determining audience, performed for and against, who starts and stops the funding, talked around with that thing that isn’t respect but has to sound like respect in case I’m listening. Maybe I see Luke getting punched because I feel like I’m getting punched. But there are almost no straight white American men in White Girls. Why should I feel like I’m getting punched if Als almost never mentions me? Exactly. The overarching other expects to be performed for, or at least discussed in the course of the performance, and when you assume inclusion, exclusion feels like an attack.
Historically, straight white American men have one of two reactions to exclusion; they don’t like it and fight or ignore it or it thrills them and they celebrate it. I tried to write the next idea several times as a travel metaphor—you know, “exclusion is a country straight white American men can visit”—but the prose never felt right, the construction always felt flawed, the sentences lacking. You can see where I was going, how choice distinguishes “thrilling” from “oppressing” but the distance between those two states stretches metaphor further than we should stretch it. I mean, it could be made to work, maybe bent around the accepted concept of “slumming” but even that feels inaccurate. The thing is, straight white American men don’t travel; when they get there it’s home.
Straight white American male privilege is difficult to discuss because it is essentially endless. There are no situations in American society with straight white men present where you can say their privilege does not apply; or there are a few, but rather than being recognized as pathetic lip service to the ideals of humanist society, they are lauded as proof of progress. And there is another straight white American male privilege: you can be proud of being slightly less of a dick than you’re sexist, racist, homophobic grandfather. When I’m walking I am constantly asked for directions and that is the privilege of being trusted and not being feared, which comes from being far less likely to go to jail, far less likely to be stopped and frisked, far more likely to be hired, to be listened to, trusted by strangers, have my suggestions adopted, my writing taken seriously, my desires accepted as natural, my flaws apologized for, my mass shooters understood as aberrations even though they’re pretty much all white men, my corporate criminals understood as aberrations even though they’re pretty much all white men, my racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, reactionary, self-centered, cynical, radical conservativism given a place in mainstream politics even though it arms itself more passionately than the Black Panthers because it comes from white men—if you hate how I read Als I’ll still be a straight white American man and if you love how I read Als I’ll still be a straight white American man. You’d let me steal a bike. You’d give me a warning for getting caught with a little weed in the glove compartment. You’d give me all the time I need at the microphone. Totality is hard to say anything effective about. Even harder when it is your totality you’re discussing because you discuss it with itself. And “hard” isn’t really the right word, because whatever I’m doing is the easy version of whatever I’m doing.
Or maybe Als just pit fights his ideas.
A bookseller in his 30s, who has been selling books for almost ten years, is in a weird spot for picking out books. Publishers know what he likes, so they send him books he’ll like. He follows bookish social media. He goes to trade shows and other events. He loves all that, but there aren’t many reading surprises. Surprise is one of the most powerful reading experiences a physical book store can give you (along with overhearing interesting conversations, like the stories about “Jabberwocky” and the Van Gogh this bookseller often overhears a colleague tell). You browse and a cover jumps out and grabs you and suddenly you have a new favorite author or favorite fantasy series or whatever and along with the whatever you also get visceral, emotional proof that the world is far bigger than what you contain in your shell of preference. He knows this power and sometimes he misses this power, so sometimes he does his best to induce this proof of the world’s extent by randomly flipping through a book that catches his eye while he’s shelving. He did that with White Girls and decided to get it from the library. (Sure, he gets a discount, but he’s not made of money.) Ten pages in he realizes it is not a borrow book. It is an own book, it is a look up every now and again to see it on the shelves book, it is a return to it and close-read specific essays book, it is a I’m not made of money but I’m going to buy it in hardcover anyway book. Maybe the lesson he learns isn’t quite as fundamental as the ultimate freedom of words and paint, but it’s still pretty damn fundamental.
You can write with violence out of love.
– Josh Cook‘s criticism has appeared in Bookslut, The Millions, and The Rumpus. His fiction and poetry has appeared in The Coe Review, Epicenter Magazine, The Owen Wister Review, Barge, Plume Poetry Anthology 2012, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2011 and 2012 Cupboard Fiction Contest. His novel Trike and Lola in Synthetic American will be published by Melville House next winter. He is a bookseller with Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA and writes the books and culture blog In Order of Importance.