I'd heard a lot about Als's book through the literary buzz generated from its publication in McSweeney's in Autumn of last year. The Millions mention I'd heard a lot about Als's book through the literary buzz generated from its publication in McSweeney's in Autumn of last year. The Millions mentioned it as one of the year's best reads and the stacks of blurbs on the back were hyperventilating in their approbation.
I'd read one of Als's essays before in Harper's, about gender and sexuality and it was stylistically interesting as much as it was philosophically compelling. A rare find, that.
So I got it for Xmas from my no-doubt-befuddled parents and gave it a look....
Tristes Tropiques, the opening chapter, was very profound, complex and moving: a true cri de coeur as much as a structural and linguistic tour de force. Als puts his eloquent, digressive, confessional-yet-coolly-analytical style right up at you without pause or apology and the effect is almost overpowering in its uncompromising insight. It's personal, it's political, it's prosaic, it's pointed.
Als doesn't merely blur the lines between genres and topics, messing with accepted categories of knowledge, he capably and brilliantly veers in and out of them.
One minute he's talking about his ex-lover, the next it's a French novel, then it's his parents, his friend's clothes, painful memories of his youthful eczema, meeting Jean-Michel Basquiat at a party back in the day, a moment in a conversation, the look on a person's face when they watch a movie, and on and on...
I don't mean to make this sound like Als is self-indulgent or sloppy. He isn't. It's more that Als has such an enviably sure grip on his prose style that he can tack gracefully from one topic to another, one emotion to another, one insight to the next, so that he can do that he wants to get the effect he desires: disorient the reader if he wants to shake them up or to turn a memory over for it to catch the light a certain way.
And, as with all good writers, the style is substance. The form is the function. They find a way to tell the old verities and the truths of the heart by making it new.
Als wants to tell you about Otherness, hidden memories, vibrant but tattered subcultures and the discontents of being queer, black, and ultra-sensitive and deeply intelligent amid the moronic inferno. If you don't mind his unique and challenging prose style (and you shouldn't!) there is a tremendous amount of bitter wisdom, aphoristic pith, heartbreaking loss, poetic reminiscence, caustic social criticism and erudite analysis available to you.
And then there's his literary criticism...
Als's take on Flannery O'Connor was a fine appraisal, taking her seriously and not mistaking the Georgian for the trees. His take on the controversial life of Louise Brooks "whom no man will ever have" is also great. Especially his detailed case study on the life and career trajectory of the brilliant, doomed Richard Pryor and of Louise Helen Norton, the tragically muted mother of Malcolm X: 'where's HER autobiography' is a very powerful and brilliant question. As is her status as an eponymous "white girl."
Which is sort of where the problems begin.
I wasn't persuaded by his take on Eminem's ersatz blackness. It's not that I'm an essentialist when it comes to racial matters, it's more that I'm not sure that poverty, geography, musical style, or cultural environment confer the same status or experience as someone of a different race. Eminem is a very talented guy, no question, but a, so to speak, 'white'/'black' guy? Nah, not buying it...
I mean, there is a certain level of empathy, even solidarity, that Eminem might properly feel with members of other races due to being brought up in scandalously oppressive conditions, but the fact of his being white still means he's most likely able to go places and do things which other people who don't look like him cannot go and do and be. Not really. This isn't Eminem's fault, surely, but I think race can't just be delineated through a set of particular social signifiers- the world is too fucked up for it to be that simple. Or that complex.
Maybe this makes more sense: Als writes about Truman Capote's infamous, seductive, doe-eyed author photo on the back of Other Voices, Other Rooms signifying to the world "I am a woman." And then he analyzes Capote's career in that light- competition with his more macho contemporary writers like Mailer and betraying the trust of the high society dames he'd assiduously courted by novelizing their very private lives, etc...Again, not really buying this line of thought.
I mean, Capote might well have been TRYING to signify that he was a woman, or at least his own idea of one, or perhaps society's, but that doth not a female make. It would be reductive (not to say insulting to women everywhere) to suggest otherwise. Social signification only goes so far. Biology isn't destiny, but neither is semiotic performance.
I might be misreading Als here, but he does seem to lean rather hard on the idea of race and gender as being products of social signifiers, performances, codes.
Als's appraisals of Gone With The Wind and the phenomenon of Michael Jackson were interesting but not as fleshed-out as I'd hoped they would be. Maybe he didn't feel like he needed to go further, but It seemed to me that both these essays were finishing just as they were getting started.
All in all, the book is very challenging, in the best way- consistently engaging, complex, heartfelt but bitterly ironic (a particularly tricky feat to pull off, on the page especially) while packing the pages with material. Als is erudite, lyrical, provocative and pissed-off. In a word, important.
The fact that the book was worshipfully embraced by white critics everywhere isn't, I think, a statement on the depth of literary white guilt as much as a testament to the power and the skill which Als brings to every intricate, lyrical, castigating sentence.
Magnificent. A joy to read. Filled with wit, erudition, pointed insights, worldly scope and earned wisdom.
John Leonard was one of those freelance bo Magnificent. A joy to read. Filled with wit, erudition, pointed insights, worldly scope and earned wisdom.
John Leonard was one of those freelance book and culture critics who we are always hearing laments about the passing of, the end-of-an-era type stuff, the senescent self-pity of people who either aren't interested or up to the task of keeping the idea of criticism as art alive at least for another generation, until the next wave of bookish brats comes in and starts redecorating the place...
This collection was sent to me unbidden by a dear friend who bought one for himself, too, because there just isn't anything quite like reading essays and reflections by someone who not only knows his stuff but also makes sure that you, the reader, are riding along with him.
I've said it before and I'll say it again- the only thing better than reading a book is reading about a book, preferably one which you have not read before.
Leonard did this in spades, and luckily he made a living doing it. I'd only seen him in a couple of interview fragments after he died and he came across on screen much like he comes across on the page- warm, amiable, confident, John Learned.
He exults in the things he justifiably loves (Toni Morrison, Mailer, Roth, The Ed Sullivan Show, Don DeLillo, Grace Paley, and many more) and he roasts the things he justifiably hates (Nixon, the Moral Majority, bad TV, Reagan, etc) which is part of what any good critic must do.
His prose is free-spirited but sure-footed and his sense of sentence structure and punctuation (yay for the semicolon!) as well as his wonderfully vivid and culturally playful sense of imagery and metaphor are not only extremely easy to read while being sneakily complex and pithy but also warmly accessible and helpfully precise. You may not always catch his references (I did, mostly, and call me sentimental or narcissistic but this little trick always wins me over every time) but you can pick them up in context and sense that they're put there for a reason.
His love of language, of acknowledging the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world' and his delight in the now-ancient and somewhat obscured worlds of the past that spelunking through culture brings you is a joyous intoxicant.
You can tell he was doing what he loved and that he'd found a place for his mind and heart to develop fully. His was not a wasted life. He was, after all, a guy who said that we live alone but with each other and that if you love a book, the book will love you back.
Read him if you love reading.
Read him if you love to read about reading.
Read him if you love to love reading and reading about reading.
Read him if you don't want to waste your life....more
Wow, I can totally remember hearing about this in those big-people magazines (Newsweek! Time!) when I was but a pup and seeing it on my living room t Wow, I can totally remember hearing about this in those big-people magazines (Newsweek! Time!) when I was but a pup and seeing it on my living room table and devouring the sucker. Oooh la la! is this what it was like to be on a political campaign? Is this what real political people in the know are all about? Is this what Bill Clinton's like in person?
W-O-A-H. I'd really like to give this a re-read, and soon. It'll be well-nigh Proustian, I wager....more
I used to read these as an exciting glimpse into the world of adults (radicals, presidents, war machines, college hookups and beer! O my!) and I real I used to read these as an exciting glimpse into the world of adults (radicals, presidents, war machines, college hookups and beer! O my!) and I really only got the ones about football. Would like to give these another look, now that I'm older and wiser and yet I can still catch the smell of the white, varnished wood in the cupboard where I found these......more
I remember just barely getting any of this when I found it somewhere in my parent's shelves when I was, like, 13. Now I'd love to go back and read it I remember just barely getting any of this when I found it somewhere in my parent's shelves when I was, like, 13. Now I'd love to go back and read it again with the benefit of hindsight and subsequent political obsessions...more