May 2013



The End of San Francisco by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

I guess that even the most experienced divers have to take some moments to relax and quiet their thoughts before shallow diving. Well, I kind of had the same feeling before starting to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's latest book, The End of San Francisco. Still, I could not ease the feeling with her fierce writing. Quite the opposite. But I guess you cannot write about deeply personal experiences like hers in any other way than a brutal one. You simply cannot wrap child sexual abuse in rainbow-colored metaphors. You cannot pretend that sexuality hasn't been superseded by raw exchanges performed according to the latest detachment rules preached by consensus reality. You cannot play safe when safety is just an illusion, a beautiful and cozy one but still an illusion. And you simply cannot ignore that the city of every possibility and consequently the mythical city of your dreams has turned into an artificial realm dwelled by omniscient hipsters practicing the art of shutting off.

"The First Time" is the first piece from The End of San Francisco. And the title alone makes you wonder what you're going to read next. But you may find yourself bitterly surprised as this initial text is throbbing with a bundle of past recollections of child sexual abuse and present hardheaded acknowledgment knotted up in a whole that could easily transform itself into a clinic report. But it doesn't. Instead, you'll get a vivid piece of autobiography whose protagonist is eager to move on once she gets what she wants, namely the recognition of the harm that has been done to her: "If I'm trying to establish a narrative here, crying is that narrative and everything else around it... I'm cold in the way I learned to survive as a kid except now I'm also crying..." The next two texts, "Together" and "The Texture of the Air" could easily trick you to breathe in an illusive flimsiness: bass and beat infused music, auto-prescribed masculinity, DIY fashion, glamorous dance floors, the annoyingly omnipresent Craigslist, a club whose name Together seems to be a bad joke when you can't get a single ride home. But when all these find their counterparts in acute nostalgia for a time when sex wasn't in the shadows of the AIDS hysteria, when DJs could actually spin records, when sudden intimacy and public desire weren't on the endangered human interactions list, then you know that San Francisco's present is hardly more than a bad cover version of its past.

"Anyone You Come into Contact With" is mapping the escape from almost everything and in ways you may never have dreamt of. It's about radical queer activism and the autonomous spaces erupting as a response to the macho gay clubs and straight-cut punk and anarchist scenes. It's about fluid relationships that break down so easily that it seems natural to be back on track a day later. It's about trying not to lose your temper no matter what and beating norms and their re-enactors on their own terms: "This was childhood: I needed to do better, better than my father -- he went to Oberlin, medical school, became a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist -- I had to go to a more prestigious school, become more successful, buy a bigger house, make more money; this was the only chance I had, the only chance not to die. Except then I started to realize that was death too. That's when I knew I was trapped." Disenchantment with a city that meant so much for everyone trying to evade the oppressive mechanisms of a reality imposed by others and their norms, the constant redesigning of attitudes, sexual behaviors and beliefs in order to confront the status quo, the search for meaningful community, the attempt to write down personal experiences that could easily burn the paper they're written on -- all these pretty much sum up the fourth piece, "The End of San Francisco": "At the time I still wanted to be invulnerable, or at least to seem invulnerable, and so I channeled all my emotions into a politicized rage, rage at this culture that had made and betrayed me -- what do you mean community? I dissected the betrayal, step by step. I went off on scenesterism, on followers, on the emptiness of Mission dyke posturing. But I didn't talk about how I'd believed."

"Wide Wake" mixes and scratches loose and explosive thoughts on losing a close friend in favor of death, on the perverse bond between responsibility and influence, on gay culture and its camaraderie as a bitter substitute for intimacy, on zines as casting out rituals ("We each made a page in this zine and a lot of it was about rape and incest and sex work and rage and it's funny to think we made the zine right before we all became enemies, because at that moment it felt like we were finally getting along"), on club music as an acutely needed salvation, on alcohol and drugs as ways to put some distance between or maybe as ways to get even closer to the core of things, on putting on amazing looks when feeling like shit. And if you're not already feeling at a loss when reading this piece, then you might grasp the lucidity behind all these somewhat chaotic yet tender lines that push you back and forth through Mattilda's memories. "Sketching Gay Shame" acts to confront the hypocrisy, violence and exclusion professed by the white gay culture, frustrations rising from relationships that fail to reach a certain closeness and offer exhaustion disguised as insecurity instead, rejection of parental figures when recognized in your closest friend's attitude, and above all, a deep-rooted feeling that San Francisco isn't the right place anymore, "a place where marginalized queers could try to figure out a way to cope," defeated as it is by gentrification, charades wearing the facade of museums and huge luxury lofts. "What We Were Creating" also recalls how personal rage can become politicized in safe spaces primarily based on friendship, how alienation and imagination can both be used as edged activist tools, how belonging to a queer counterculture can mean a lot more than a simple social identity: "How can we remain accountable while assimilating into male privilege? And this would challenge my own assumptions about masculinity as something to be avoided: what would it mean to create a masculinity that was chosen, negotiated, and transformed?"

When you admit that you're afraid of your best friend, you may easily find yourself feeling terribly insecure, too. What's lacking in intimacy is rapidly replaced by assertiveness. But to what extent? "Unlearning the Safety" distills a friendship wasting away but still trying to hook on small gestures and silences, on random objects that still bear the dear one's fingerprints to the point that they can almost make your skin itch, on conversations that try but kind of fail to be anything but dismissive. And honestly now, is there anyone who cannot identify with this? Anyone? "I feel my body in a different way my body with him in the way I want it's a long hug I like this hug I don't want it to end. Except also I'm wondering if this is the future -- I'm present for Derek, but is he present for me?" The final piece, "The Beach," reminded me of a popup postcard with its seesaw flashes pointing to a kid's childhood, a kid who swings between therapy sessions and tries to come to terms with not really belonging anywhere, who experiences sexuality without knowing the "right" name for it while having to repel the father's fetishism for things that are regarded as manly or belonging to the working class he falsely assumes he belongs to; and on top of all these, there's a constant fear of gaining weight, an obsession with a diet that sometimes is hard to imagine as having the potential to support one's heartbeats.

Since I don't particularly enjoy sticking baggy labels on the books I like, I will simply call The End of San Francisco a queer crib-book that dares you to read it and think for yourself.

The End of San Francisco by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Publishers
ISBN: 978-0872865723
192 pages