By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore; City Lights Publishing; 246 pages
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s brilliant new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, is either about the end of queer politics or its beginning. It’s either a record of how dismal the contemporary gay movement has become with its relentless pursuit of assimilation or about the possibility for a politics that challenges the same. But mostly, it’s about a character named Mattilda who lives in San Francisco, turns tricks, protests the mainstreaming of gay politics and our wars, calls shoplifting “bargain shopping” and lives with mice she can’t bear to kill.
Willie Brown, a former mayor of San Francisco, once intoned with raw heartlessness, “If you can’t afford to live in San Francisco, you should leave.” San Francisco’s reputation as a gay Mecca was cemented in 2003 when current Mayor Gavin Newsom granted gay-marriage licenses. Thousands of gay couples see him as their friend. But, as activist groups like Gay Shame (of which our heroine is a member) have shown, Newsom’s political ascendancy came through anti-homeless policies like his 2002 initiative Care Not Cash, which cut homeless people’s allowances from $322 to $59 a month. The feel-good liberal politics of “marriage equality” shields the effects of gentrification.
Mattilda and her friends can barely afford to live here, but they persist. They keep relentlessly protesting gentrification and the war, and keep getting arrested and beaten for their actions. Mattilda seems addicted to the city. When a friend announces he might move to New York (all pronouns are indeterminate), she’s stunned: “Zan says he’s moving to New York, a vortex opened up after 9-11 and people finally treat each other well, all these amazing things are happening. Is she doing drugs?”
Life in Mattilda’s apartment is in perpetual chaos, and she lives with mice and roaches with whom she’s reached an uneasy accord. About the roaches, she writes, “I see them crawling out of my speakers and unfurling dangerous flags, one of them grows so big it takes up half the kitchen, excuse me I need to do the dishes.” Her body keeps betraying her with pain; her migraines hurt; and the news on television and radio makes her physically sick: “there’s another anti-war demo on Saturday and I’m feeling the new P’n’P: powerless and paranoid.” Even in the midst of a perpetual meltdown, she transmits the absurdity and hope and agony of the world around her with astonishing clarity.
NPR plays constantly here, its innocuous bits and pieces forming the soundtrack to these strange times: “On NPR they are interviewing the woman who invented new ways to slaughter cows. She knows how they feel, which…means they are happy. She’s autistic, once she was incapacitated but now she’s a success story: every day she gets up to perfect the methods of murder.” This is the (neo) liberal world where understanding and knowing how it must feel to die makes up for the killing.
Can Mattilda survive? Are things reaching a breaking point? Her friend Ralowe calls about what feels like the end of a friendship: “I used to feel like Benjamin and I could have these conversations about race and identity and living in the world. I felt like we had this closeness because we’ve experienced trauma and alienation in similar ways and now she’s telling me that never happened…” This is personal, yes, but it’s also about the possible death of political connection. So Many Ways could be a preachy tome about San Francisco but it’s instead an effortless and very funny sashay into the depths of a city that doesn”t bother reconciling its contradictions.
This is neither a hopeful book nor a pessimistic one; it’s an exhilarating one. You could leave feeling frightened by the vision of a sexy gay world that pays no heed to the destruction around it. Or you could exult, as I do, in the revelations offered here.