A PROFOUND PLUNGE
Experience the 1995 club scene without damaging your liver
What were you doing in 1995? Think for a moment, and remember. Think about the music you loved, and the clothes you wore, and the places you spent your weekend nights. Think about the people you had sex with, and the drugs you were taking (if either of those conditions applied to you). Think about the books you read, about the tics in your speech, about what made you happy and what made you sad.
Consider all this, and then consider Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s forthcoming novel, Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press, October). What she writes about has almost no relationship to the life I lived in 1995, but the book is so immediate, and so richly textured, that my own memories showed up only in faded grays as I read. I had to stop and remember that I had done virtually none of the things Alexa, the narrating character of Sketchtasy, does in the course of the novel, and that the Boston club scene of 1995 was not present all around me, bass pulsing under my feet, illegal substances sweating out of my pores. I’ve never even done ecstasy, much less cocaine or ketamine, all of which Alexa puts in her body in alarming quantities in the novel.
A summary of Sketchtasy does little to convey the book, which leans on voice rather than plot as its primary engine. Alexa, a young gay man whose body is male but whose pronouns are female, parties, turns tricks, goes to therapy in an attempt to overcome trauma, finds a sugar daddy, almost finds a boyfriend, and parties some more. Other men, some gay and others possibly closer to trans (the book is not scientific about such distinctions), move in and out of her life. Always, her adventures coast on loud music, flashy clothes, drugs, and sex. AIDS is a specter, but a practical rather than a ponderous one. That is, for instance, a friend contracts AIDS and has to sell off his drug-dealing business, and that scene is a hysterical jolt for Alexa. But there are no direct scenes of hospitals and dying words.
In several sequences late in the book, Alexa narrates rereading David Wojnarowicz (who died of AIDS) and explains how powerful it was to have a literary model for her sexuality in her young life. Then she reads Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body and retells some of the tragedy of that book. But these examples don’t scare Alexa into changing her behavior, or add a maudlin tone. Instead, they offer a potent sense of the knife-edge on which Alexa and her friends live. It’s not just the plentiful drugs that put them in danger; it’s the beatings and verbal abuse they sometimes take in public, and the constant worry about condoms and test results. Living out in 1995 is inherently dangerous, and the measures Alexa takes to numb the emotions attached to such danger are easy to understand:
That joy—it isn’t possible without the drugs, it’s just not a sensation your body can make. You can take more pills to fall asleep, but there’s still the next day, you have to deal with the next day.
No less arresting than Alexa’s substance-soaked lifestyle is the sheer headlong quality of Sycamore’s prose. She pushes us into Alexa’s world without apology, before we can catch our breath:
When I got off the phone I felt like a terrible terrible friend, maybe not even a friend just some drugged-out mess and when the hell was I really going to sleep so I started rummaging through my drawer for Xanax even though doxepin helps more but I’m trying not to take that too much so I don’t get addicted. So I snorted half a Xanax, swallowed another one, and got back in bed—talk about floating on the ceiling and how can I still be this wired, how much coke did I do last night, maybe I should just get up, oh, wait, yes, finally, yes, thank you.
Under these long runs of chaos, language tumbling out quicker than the eye can move across the page, is a steel frame. Sycamore has major craft chops, and though the book seems disorganized, it is not. Alexa’s narration uses shifting pronouns for her friends—sometimes he, sometimes she-—in a calculated way, one which never confuses the reader but instead draws him into an environment he might not understand. Each chapter is built around a specific incident or emotional focus. Sometimes Alexa clearly addresses the reader, and sometimes she’s lost in her own perspective, but these shifts aren’t random. The broader arc of the book, deftly hidden beneath the roaring prose, is almost an addiction story: a bottom to hit, a relapse, an uncertain future. Yet this story seems fresh in Sycamore’s hands.
Just as Wojnarowicz’s books help Alexa understand her precedents and something like her place in the world, Sketchtasy is a book in which a great many gay people are likely to recognize themselves, and feel less alone. I found it foreign to my experience (and thus fascinating), but in voice and texture I was reminded strongly of Blake Nelson’s Girl, a book I read in my teens. That book helped me understand that I was not the only teenage girl who had weird thoughts and too much drama and massive, liquid emotions.
Living out in 1995 is inherently dangerous, and the measures Alexa takes to numb the emotions attached to such danger are easy to understand.
However, Sketchtasy is not intended just for an audience of gay men, or clubbers, or frequent users of ecstasy, or people who were born around 1975 and lived in Boston in their early 20s. If that were true, Sycamore would not have worked as hard as she has to immerse the reader in Alexa’s subjective experience. Due to the singular power of its voice, this novel is a profound plunge for any reader. The water might be deeper for those of us who can’t directly relate to Alexa’s experiences, but it’s a dive worth taking.