Earlier this year, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers released Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore‘s new memoir, The End of San Francisco, to much critical acclaim. Here is a video of of Mattilda reading from this book at City Lights Bookstore last Spring, followed by a review.
Two thoughts are salient as I set out to review Sycamore’s extraordinary memoir, The End of San Francisco: The first is that this is a wonderfully exciting and satisfying read. The second is to wonder how I can possibly describe such original work.
Sycamore overturns expectations at every level. Not only is the sequencing of the story unpredictable, moving back and forth in time, tumbling off contemplative reflection, but sentence for sentence and word for word, nothing is as it seems. Facts and faces fade in and out of clarity. Which memories are real? Which are confused by drugs or passion or just plain humanity? Although the overall effect is to convincingly evoke a period in the life of our city, and to tell the story of a small group of queers who loved one another in community, at the level of any one chapter or paragraph or sentence, everything seems all poetry and abstract. The effect is not unlike that of an impressionist or pointillist painting, with tiny colorful, entrancing but abstract strokes adding up subtly to convey the impression of reality.
I wanted to say, “the book begins….”. But that does not do justice to the sense that one is just dropped into the midst of a life. There is no beginning. Suddenly, we are just there. Where? In the single opening sentence, Sycamore communicates a dazzling amount of detail (a startling skill which is evident throughout the book):
“I don’t know what’s possible, as my mother and I drive through pitch-dark suburbs that I barely recognize until we get right near the house — were those same lights always at the end of the driveway?”
We know, instantly, that the narrator has returned to a childhood home after a long time away. That she doesn’t know what to expect or even what is possible. That she wonders about the reliability of her memory. The economy is astounding. Here is another example, where the narration establishes in a single sentence the facts of the situation (Mattilda’s father is dying, and the family has gathered at his deathbed) and the narrator’s feelings:
“I can’t go past the kitchen, to that bed in the family room where my sister sits with her boyfriend and the attendant, talking to my father.”
It is magical, this clarity of narrative and depth of feeling achieved by such minimal means.
That first chapter detailing this encounter with a dying father stands on its own as short story or preface; subsequent chapters relocate the scene to San Francisco in the 1990s, and a community of Queer activists, fighting AIDS and gentrification and assimilation and drug addiction and loneliness and childhood trauma and growing up together and apart; trying to love one another.
The chapters sail through an Odyssey of experiences, enchanting and terrifying, etched with a narrative skill that never flags. The narration of life on the club scene floats free in stream of consciousness sentences going on forever and turning back on themselves studded with associations so that reading it seems as if you’ve stopped breathing and are drowning in a wave that is carrying you forward and forward to something that is not yet clear.
Try this paragraph of three sentences: “It’s January and, yes, I’m back at Blow Buddies. They’re playing ‘Here Comes the Rain Again,’ but it’s not the Eurythmics it’s a cover of the song with a male vocalist that’s even more overwrought than the original, like you can hear the ocean in the circuit beats and I’m hugging this guy and it’s funny because this is when the kissing gets really good, but it’s still not as good as the music wants it to be. I’m holding on to find what’s next I’m not quite there until he starts scratching my back and that’s what really makes me smile and giggle like I’m humming then he’s kissing my neck my eye resting inside his ear just when ‘I want to dive into your ocean’ comes on again and it’s funny like looking into a conch shell except my eyes are closed so I can feel things better.”
Sycamore does not play show and tell with her story; she seems to tap right in to the reader’s psyche and hypnotize you into experiencing the story for yourself.
Buffeted and supported by the pains of growing up, the traumas of an abusive childhood, the effects of drug addiction, the demands of solidarity, the love of comrades, the vision of community, we grow through identification along with Mattilda into a skilled and inspired activist, leader of “Queer Shame”, charismatic and effective. As the historical context comes into focus, Sycamore’s prose does as well, tightening and contracting into a finely calibrated tool, morphing subtly from personal memoir to cogent political analysis.
The book closes in a wonderful memory piece “The Beach”, which brings us back to Mattilda’s childhood, looking towards all that the future holds, potential and horror perfectly poised in balance with each other.
It is so difficult to assess The End of San Francisco because it is a work of such blazing originality that one cannot compare it to anything else and say “this is more or less successful than that”.
The experience of The End of San Francisco simply bears no comparison.
I suggest you give it a go.
Charles Kruger has been contributing to Litseen since the beginning of time. He is also known as The Storming Bohemian and founded and runs Theatrestorm and helps to organize Bridge Art Space. He also contributes occasional book reviews to The Rumpus.