Bernstein Sycamore, Mattilda. “Sketchtasy”, Arsenal Pulp, 2018
Coming Together, Falling Apart
In the twelve years that that I have been reviewing LGBT literature, I have seen writers come and go. To stay fresh and well read, a writer must develop an audience. Then there are those audiences whose writing is so provocative that there is always an audience and I know that when I see that name on the cover of a book that I am going to have an interesting read that will make me think. The one thing that is certain is that it is impossible to predict what the book is going to be about and sometimes it takes until you are halfway through before you realize what you are reading. That, however, is not the case with Mattilda’s newest book , “Sketchtasy”. The blurb says that “it takes place in that late-night moment when everything comes together, and everything falls apart—it’s an urgent, glittering, devastating novel about the perils of queer world-making in the mid-‘90s.” Set in Boston in 1995, we see that this is a city that is dealing with a fear of difference.
Alexa is an incisive twenty-one-year-old queen who daily faces brutality but determined no to led it bother her. She rejects the pretensions of the and deals with trauma by criticizing the world. Alexa is a drug queen and her world is one of “drugged-out escapades”. She searches for home in a gay culture of clubs and conformity, apathy, and the fear of AIDS. It was a time when there was little difference between desire and death and death in fact became very real for many who had never thought about it before. For those of us who lived through that time, it was scary and a time when hope for a better future was tied to the present that did not seem to want to let go. In effect, we see this period through the author’s eyes and we do not just get descriptions, we find that we are experiencing her writing along with her. Some will be able to identify with the characters here while others will have a hard time doing so but it makes no difference for anyone who has ever been part of a larger group will understand what I am saying. Mattilda takes us to her characters and they find a way to enter us and make us feel what they feel. This is not your regular novel in that it is a novel of the emotions that is beautifully written. The memories that I thought I had lodged in the back of my mind rushed forward as I read and I felt honored to shed cathartic tears.
“It’s dangerous, hilarious, scary, and transcendentally beautiful.”
If I had to name my favorite parts of “Sketchtasy”, I would be unable to do so because every sentence and every word in every sentence is my favorite. We read of Alexa’s quest for connection and we join her on it. Alexis is one of the most real literary characters I have come across lately. As we read, we live through her and she, in turn, lives within us.
We find the relevance of nostalgia and the beauty of memories. However Mattilda’s nostalgia becomes violent in that it replaces what was with mass-marketed, consumer-friendly products. Alexa is trapped in the life of the Boston gay clubs and culture and she yearns for a better place but is unable to find what she needs and wants. At the time of the time, Boston was not open to difference aside from in the Boston’s gay ghetto that tried to ape the main culture of the city and by that I mean what was considered to be the normalcy of straight society which included racism, self-hatred and, of course, misogyny. I still see remnants of this in the Boston of today.
This is Alexa’s story and she relays it to us in her first-person stream of consciousness. She has rejected the society that she was raised to subscribe to and she is totally alone yet wanting to belong. She argues with someone in a café who tells her that she is who she was brought up to be and she rejoins that those that live that way hate themselves. She plans to rise about that but… she needs a boost.