In pieces that hairpin between critique and meditation, fiction and nonfiction, high culture and low, the theoretical and the deeply personal, Als presents a portrait of a writer by way of his subjects, and a guide to the culture of our time.
His characteristic form is a kind of essay in which biography, memoir, and literary criticism flow into one another as if it were perfectly natural that they should ... In all of his essays, the life gets as much scrutiny as the work, with an eye to one particular question: How do artists come alive to their ambitions and then proceed to realize them? How does the work get made? ... Whatever their generation, these characters taken together seem to speak to our contemporary predicament: how embarrassing to admit that one has not been able to find a mate in a supposedly egalitarian, sexually liberated, post-Stonewall era so abundant in sexual and romantic possibilities ... Als will seem to be breaking some essential rule of first-person essay-writing in disastrous fashion and then turn the passage inside-out, revealing it to have a different rhetorical function than you originally thought.
...his writing is imbued with such preternatural insight and charm that it borders on the uncanny ... He is able to assess whatever he chooses in a clear-eyed, interesting way, making incisive critiques and asserting generalities that never sound grandiose or unfounded like lesser critics (i.e. the rest of us) often do ... He addresses his singularity most thoroughly in 'Tristes Tropiques,' the 84-page marvel that opens the book. The essay, a gorgeous and devastating elegy for the demise of his closest and longest friendship, also serves as a meditation on death, family, race, queerness, the mediasphere, and art ... But in a brilliant book of lovely writing, Als’s essay on Flannery O’Connor sticks out as the loveliest and most brilliant.
Here, reading becomes psychoanalytic self-exhibition, complete with insights on identity, sexuality, voice and the attainment of knowledge ... Als’s careful read on Capote doubles as a mind-popping take on white girls generally. He exposes the funny and calculated fissures that can open between the white-girl self we’re shown and the white-girl self we cannot know, the slipperiness of white girls as shackled objects of desire and matrices of power. Nearly all his other literary readings glisten with this panache ... His resulting critique of whiteness is effortless, honest and fearless. He doesn’t afford whites any unwitting reverence, nor any hip, posturing disdain .... Als comes across as a critic who has mastered nuance and observation but not discipline or moderation. An orgy — or gluttony — of insights overwhelms these pages ... Clearly, Als is writing against the essay’s depletion as a genre. Yet how bizarre to read so many thought-jewels delivered in such perfect prose, scattered across such sloppy form ... Blends the cultivated and the vulgar with interpretive sophistication and unbridled verve.