“Metaphors sustain us,” claims Hilton Als in “Tristes Tropiques,” the first essay in White Girls. “To a point” might echo that claim, one which defines, fills, and propels “Tristes Tropiques” as well as many other essays whose subjects range from Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Louise Little (Malcolm X’s mother), and Richard Pryor. Metaphor elevates and transcends its subjects--it can locate the essence of something, an essence that maybe only one person might ever see and find, and then renders that elusive and near invisible essence in terms that many more will recognize. As we would assume, those essays, about Eminem and Michael Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, are not only about their most obvious subjects but about what the subjects represent; each writer, musician, artist, and so on functions also as the intersectional essence of something much greater and larger. Metaphor sustains us and Als for those essays, to be sure. But “Tristes Tropiques “ stands out, for lots of reasons, including because Als use of metaphor of sustenance is more visible and less viable than in any other essay in White Girls. In “Tristes Tropiques” metaphors are like sandcastles that will disintegrate once the essay is over, just like the relationship they evoke; virtually every other essay is a metaphor itself that continues elevating and transcending after the book is closed.
Als then uses metaphor, not via traditional simile or some other quick comparison, throughout White Girls: when he imagines Louise Little’s inner life to be more than Malcolm X represented it to be, as fodder for white intellectuals who want to understand her as a white-passing woman integral to her son’s politics, or when he dissects Truman Capote as a woman writer (crucially, not a writer about or for women). Or when, in “The Only One,” at its most basic about another black gay artist, the fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, Als pragmatically teaches us about Talley’s elaborate life and career, only to end with an anecdote about a Paris luncheon that undermines the rest of the essay’s measured, scientific, portraiture:
Talley got up from his seat to sit near Maxime de la Falaise, who had admired a large turquoise ring he wore.
“Look, LouLou!” Talley shouted. “The color of this ring is divine, no? Just like the stone you gave me!”
“What?” LouLou de la Falaise asked, barely disguising her boredom.
“This ring, child. Just like the stone you gave me, no?”
LouLou de la Falaise did not respond. She nodded toward Roxanne Lowit, and Lowit instructed her to stand behind Maxime de la Falaise and Talley. LouLou de la Falaise said, “I will stand there only if Andre tries not to look like such a nigger dandy.”
Several people laughed, loudly. None laughed louder than Andre Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits. Talley attempted to pick those pieces up. He sighed, then stood up and said, “Come on, children. Let’s see something. Let’s visit the House of Galliano.”
Everything before this moment in “The Only One” was different. Als takes us through Talley’s life without any analysis or embellishment: “[Talley’s] emotional involvement with women rises in part from nostalgia. He seems to project his grandmother’s intentions and concerns for him…” and “His interest in romance is nostalgic, too. For him, romance is not about ending his loneliness; rather it flows from the idea, expounded by Baudelaire, that love is never truly attained, only yearned for.” That is to say, for the vast majority of the essay, Als describes the life of a gay black man who is integral to a white world without suggesting what that might mean. Als repeats others’ commentary about Talley--a writer for Vogue who labels Talley as “the greatest crossover act in the industry for quite some time” but who will “never be an editor-in-chief” because “how could America have that [Talley] dictating what the women of America will wear? Or representing them?” But Als himself provides no commentary. He does not suggest what Talley does represent, to borrow that Vogue writer’s language.
We only see, until the essay’s last minute, about Talley what everyone else sees. But then Als shares how it “seemed” to him then. We get, amidst the white socialites whose understanding of Talley bears no resemblance to Als’, that essence as it emerges quietly and implicitly through Als’ observation. It’s almost more of the same measured witness to Talley’s life that precedes; Als’ impression of the moment are words that fell together perfectly to gesture toward something that was festering all along.
In the book’s other essays, metaphor works differently: Als more explicitly and thus more traditionally looks at American art and culture in his subjects’ own rights as well as, through his analysis, what they mean. Photographs of black men lynched unfold as proof of a sort of white guilt; Eminem acts as the ever dynamic intersection of white and class privilege as well as a vehicle through which to understand how a poet’s language both reflects and shapes his word. “The Only One” is one essay in which metaphor operates several layers beneath its surface.
So is “Tristes Tropiques,” surprisingly, because Als is upfront and relentless in how metaphor figures into both his essay and into his essay’s topic: his thirty-something year relationship with an “SL,” another black man with whom Als was in love (he never uses those words). “Tristes Tropiques” differs from the book’s other essays in virtually every possible way: its length (almost ninety pages), that it’s about Als’ own relationship with references to culture and art and literature and society without any thorough analysis of those references, its blend of fiction and non-fiction and memoir and criticism (as a book, White Girls is all those things; it’s arguable as to whether any single essay encompasses each and every genre in itself). Als’ relationship with SL (Sir or Lady, abbreviated), until it ended in 2007, was unconventional. He tells us--it’s important to remember that what we know about the relationship is only from what he tells us--that it was both romantic and platonic, that they were a “we,” that they were a “couple” but never lovers, because SL is straight and one of Als’ titular white girls would inevitably pull the two apart, that they formed their brand of twinship.
“We are not lovers,” Als explains, “it’s almost as if I dreamed him--my lovely twin, the same as me, only different.” That distinction--between being lovers and dreaming of a lovely twin with whom to spend your life and on whom to spend your mind--justifies Als metaphor of their relationship as that of a familial bond, although a very particular one. Twinship has in common with Als’ rendition of his and Sl’s relationship the closeness, the similarities, and (writing as a twin) a kind of visceral motion: you always want to be nearer, physically and mentally, to the twin with whom you already overlap in so many ways. What twinship also has in common, of course, with the descriptives of Als’ relationship with SL at least, is the absence of the erotic. In a way, being a twin is the closest you can be to someone without sleeping with them, or without being them yourself.
To evoke what is, or was, the definitive relationship of his life, Als adopts different voices: the cultural critic, the hopeful lover, the scorned lover, the self-aware lover. In the essay’s first paragraph, Als is the unrequited lover, always hoping, always, like a twin who experiences that constant impulse to just be a little closer, unfulfilled:
Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love. He’s running the same old flick in his head again. In it, the stars kiss breathlessly, in true love. This is the kind of movie he enjoys: the movie guy kisses the movie girl and they are one. I listen to Sir or Lady detailing this or that movie scenario and look for myself in every word of it. I don’t want to exist much outside his thinking and regard. I’m convinced Sir or Lady’s movie tales are his way of telling me he and I are one; he’s a romantic, but a silent one. He says: the movie girl overcomes her resistance to the movie guy and then we know they are one forever. (He’s never told me this part of the story before. He’s never used that exact sequence of words before.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? The familiarity with the kind of movie he enjoys, the search for yourself in every word he says, the indifference to “exist[ing] much outside his thinking and regard,” and the subsequent conviction that every word the beloved object utters is code for something else. (We don’t need Als to elaborate on what he really hears in when SL talks about a movie girl overcoming her resistance to the movie guy.) It’s the voice of someone in love with someone who doesn’t love them back, a voice we hear in countless songs and poems and books and movies and television shows. It’s an old voice. It’s hard for this voice to say anything new, because even though what this voice has to say seems apocalyptic and truthful and expressive and one in a million to its speaker, it’s so universal that it’s redundant to anyone else. (He’s never used that exact sequence of words before, the voice tells to anyone who will listen.)
But then there’s a different voice, the reflective one of the critical personal essayist, as Als tells us that he’s “spent a fair amount of time trying--in the blind, awkward, and ultimately solipsistic way many of us strive to articulate why the beloved has become just that--how SL came to fill my mind like no one else on earth.” It’s self-aware and self-conscious and apologetic, and it’s also beautiful. For despite how hard it is to make such a tired subject lovely, Als does. The first voice and the second voice battle and undermine each other perpetually; we read sentences as touching and sad as Als description of watching SL watch a movie (“I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like the folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.”) and then we read sentences that are hyperbolic and deeply relatable and nothing new (“Oh, Lord, don’t ever let this end: he smells like no one else on earth, and he sounds like no one else on earth.”). One thing we can make of this is that this is Als’ essay, and we are reading it, and if we’re reading the poetry we can also read the diary.
That moment--actually, there are several similar ones--in which Als watches SL watch a movie--is perhaps a perfect metaphor for love, of any kind, but particularly unrequited. Anne Carson, the classicist and poet, wrote about this in Eros the Bittersweet, where she posits love as a triangular geometry in which there is always some third party, some obstacle, subverting and blocking the lover from the beloved. Als’ relationship to SL, and, inseparably, twinship, are reminiscent of Eros the Bittersweet as well as that mathematical theory that we can never more than halfway there. No matter how close we get, there is always more distance.
Als’ likening of him and SL and their relationship to anything--Als’ use of metaphor to try (operative word) and capture their relationship--are futile steps toward a point he can never reach. Carson’s figuring of love as inherently involving three points rather than two embodies moments in “Tristes Tropiques” when Als describes (in other words, when Als fills into language something that was unreachable to him in non-written life) him and SL as a “we”:
...we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, women who passed their “white girlhood” together. We were also the first line of Joni Mitchell’s autobiography: “I was the only black man in the room.” We were also the gorgeously corny complications one finds in Joni’s 1976 song, “Black Crow”...We were Barbara Smith and her twin sister, Beverly...we were the amused “sickness,” that Eldridge Cleever felt existed between white women and black men and he said so in his 1968 memoir...we were equal parts “butch realness” and “femme realness,”...we were every word of “Racism: The Sexism of the Family of Man”...
Later in “Tristes Tropiques,” Als tells us that “SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it. I wrote about my first kiss more fully than I lived it. I wouldn’t know what I looked like in relation to SL, my twin, if I didn’t describe it on the page.” What the notion of living on the page more than in “real” life, the way in which Als renders and brings to written life SL and him, Carson’s definition of love, and the impossibility of ever meeting and enveloping what it is you wish, all have in common and how each expands on the other, is elusivity. Als’ metaphors in “Tristes Tropiques,” unlike those in the other essays in White Girls, are self-contained; they are gestures toward holding something that, by the time he wrote about it, he had already lost. All the things that he and SL were are, according to that understanding of metaphor, iterations of their essence, but it’s an essence that Als is once again reliving on the page and not in real life because real life is Carson’s third party that escapes language and blocks the kind of unity twinship seems to reach.
Metaphors sustain us, but they can only sustain us for so long. Als tell us that “like most people, I respond to stories that tell me something about who I am or wish to be, but as reflected in another character’s eyes.” Even if that character were his twin, though, Als would still only be seeing himself in his twin’s eyes.