Queer Activist’s Novel is No Will and Grace

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on October 7, 2008

I don’t normally do book reviews. It’s not that I don’t like writing them, it’s just that I don’t want to be inundated with authors and publicists bugging me to review their work.

I had to make an exception for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. Mattilda is a San Francisco institution: A queer activist (and member of the ironically named group Gay Shame) who’s been out there for years challenging gentrification and displacement in poor and working-class neighborhoods. She is also editor of a number of anthologies that include Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I am a friend of Mattilda’s and a contributor to the two above-mentioned anthologies.

Mattilda inhabits a world far removed from the lives of those nice middle-class queer couples who, these days, are making headlines for the ordinariness of their lives: They’re getting married, owning tenancies-in-common and working corporate jobs. Some are even pushing baby carriages and changing diapers. And they’re buying gym memberships by the score.

Not Mattilda. She’s not worried about six-pack abs or the merits of bottle vs. breast feeding. Hers is a world where respectability is never thought about, where shopping often means shoplifting and gender is a personal choice, not a life sentence. “He” and “she” are often interchangeable, as with Mattilda who is a gay man but prefers “she.”

A sex worker by trade, Mattilda has a disorder of some sort that forces her to sleep erratically. The novel is written in a style similar to her sleep patterns. At times it’s like experiencing vertigo. I felt dizzy and disoriented. It doesn’t take long to realize that, as Bette once said, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It is. Sometimes Mattilda’s writing is like a slide projector on rapid automatic. She flips from one moment to another, while still maintaining a running narrative about the frustration of insomnia, the constant infestation of roaches, rats and possibly pigeons in the walls of her old apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, bad sex with johns, the temperature at the yoga studio, flashbacks of childhood incest with her father, and an affair with a guy named Jeremy.

At its core, So Many Ways is an engaging self examination that is remarkably emotionless. It’s as if Mattilda “hasn’t got time for the pain.” Then there’s those moments when human contact is desperately needed. Or she’s in a restaurant crying over the incest.

Ultimately, it’s refreshing to know that some of us are still living truly outlaw queer lives at a time when Will and Grace has made us boring to the core.

There will be a book launch for So Many Wayson October 8 at City Lights Books, 261 Columbus/ Broadway, 7:30pm, as part of litquake.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Sailing Beyond Columbus(Manic D Press), due out this week. He can be reached at www.avicollimecca.com

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