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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s second novel is even more thrilling and absorbing than her first, Pulling Taffy. Though presented as a novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is really an album of friends and family, tricks and lovers, an accumulation of snapshots (not just the ones Mattilda gets her men to take to put in her Cumshot Archive) – images that all piece together to form a rich, painful and droll portrait of a man who won’t lie low. So Many Ways carries you through the dreamscape-nightmare that is Mattilda’s life with a compelling honesty and lyricism that stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.
Mattilda lives in San Francisco (“or what’s left of it”). She goes to Bikram yoga, struggles with the excruciating pain of fibromyalgia (“sometimes everything’s terrible, and sometimes it’s worse”), takes a non-violent approach to the (real? imagined?) mice, roaches and pigeons in and above her apartment, and gets paid for sex. Mattilda writes about her tricks (the good, the bad, the smelly) and discusses her friends (Benjamin, Ralowe, Chrissie) and political activism, and takes us on regular searches for cock in Buena Vista Park and at the Power Exchange, and you just want her to keep talking, keep the dream going, this illusion that you have such fabulous intimacy with this Mattilda person who’s so outrageous and messed-up and you never want to wake up into what suddenly feels like a very sensible and humdrum kind of life. But you’re inspired and reassured that there’s another way, much more glamorous, more slutty, to live and to write, and yes, that there is “a sexual culture of faggot freaks” and you, too, want to be the proudly fucked-up love-child of Gertrude Stein and David Wojnarowicz. And by you I mean me.
“The Mattilda Show” (her words) is a roller-coaster ride of moments of invincibility and inevitable crashes. There are times when “everything aches, from jaw to heel” and a time when some bug-chasing guy leaves a message on her phone that “it finally took“ (someone asshole had given the guy Mattilda’s number as a joke). And then there are days and months when Mattilda is in love – with Jeremy in the first half of the book – and she’s doing the usual love things: waiting for calls, having great sex, tenderness, sitting together and watching the seals. But hey, in typical Mattilda style, just when you “thought the novel was turning into a love story Jeremy’s fucking that up.”
At a time when so many of us live like “monks in our cells” cruising the Internet, and (as Andrew Holleran laments in his essay “Laptops and Loneliness”) cyberspace has replaced Real Life, the world of So Many Ways is full of people, a vigorous testimony to one writer’s genuine compassion and love for other human beings. Despite the sinus headaches, the incest flashbacks, the jock itch, the rats, and the stares in restaurants, the Mattilda of the novel holds onto a belief in the goodness of others and a faith in true love and, of course, the healing and redemptive powers of cock.
Mattilda, like all writers, collects. People, experiences, outfits; mainly, you get the impression, for the pure joy of it, but also, through the writing, to preserve the details of a life as it is lived, to assert its relevance, and to avoid regret and neglect. Collecting is a way of exerting uniqueness; no one else has a collection like this! Mattilda’s collection – and this is the beauty of it – is a mess. There doesn’t seem to be any order. One event merges into the next, sometimes even in the same sentence – and just when you think you’re on solid ground, that the thread you’re following, the moment you’re in, is safe, you’re thrown out of it and into somewhere else – because, let’s face it, it’s not just The Mattilda Show that’s like that; it’s Life.
So Many Ways to Sleep Badly
City Lights Books, ISBN 978-087286-468-9