Getting lost is one of the pleasures that awaits the reader of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, the exuberant first novel by San Francisco writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Start with an impending sexual act between a first-person narrator and a man whose teeth are chattering and then—whoosh!—without transition, the narrator is describing how the carpet smells in yoga class.
But getting lost is only fun when you don’t stay lost, and So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is a book that teaches us how to read it. “Transamerica pyramid” appears on the page like a passport stamp. “Tweakers” is a landmark too, especially for readers unsure of precisely what it means. An unnamed narrator recounts personal experiences while dropping clues to (his?) identity: We surmise that s/he is 27 years old, gets paid to have sex, is trying to stay off drugs and alcohol, suffers chronic pain, and can’t get a good night’s sleep. It’s clear there’ll be no explaining, no prettying up, no attempt to impose logic on this rendering of one person’s daily life. For those who like their free association cut with sarcasm: “My cellphone rings, this guy wants to know if I have a discount for married guys with kids. Yes, of course your straight privilege applies even when you’re hiring a man to fuck you. On NPR, involuntary treatment helps people with mental illness to regain control of their lives!”
In Proustian fashion, the narrator remains anonymous until far into the book and is ultimately identified by first name only, one shared with the author. Should the extra “t” in Mattilda be taken as a clue to gender? The narrator talks about his penis but uses “she” to refer to self-indicate. Soon our own thoughts start to sound like Mattilda paraphrasing us. “Andee says: after seeing Belle and Sebastian at the Royal Albert Hall, everything else is just whipped cream—when I die, if I can’t be reassigned to some other dimension, I want to be a tree that gives cover for gay men having sex.”
Sycamore lets readers glimpse life from the point of view of someone who is both grateful for the cover of that tree and curious about the woman who “throws a ball for her dog with one of those ball-throwers.” The alchemy of this novel uses that mental splitting to illustrate for readers how one subject can be male and female, named and anonymous, inside and outside.
Mattilda, Andee, and the myriad other characters of So Many Ways To Sleep Badly are not so much developed as exploited for their quotability. Stylistically, Sycamore’s novel may be the Web 2.0 version of The 42nd Parallel, the first novel in the Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy; where the 20th-century author excerpts passages from contemporary newspapers and magazines, the 21st-century author taps a real-life friend network. But when it comes to content, most of this novel would make Dos Passos (or at least his publisher) blush. Or maybe yawn: Just as we’re starting to tire of the narrator’s incessant complaints about cockroaches and serotonin drain, she falls in love.
Possibly Sycamore’s resistance to A-leads-to-B plotting is a political choice, an indictment of lies foisted upon an unwitting public: “The U.S. captures Saddam, so there’s no evil left.” It could also be a comment on the illogic of incest or the hopelessness of HIV-negative men who make dates with HIV-positive men so they can contract the virus. But because the author rejects causality, readers longing for a story have to look elsewhere. By the end of the book, nothing much has changed for Mattilda. She still sleeps badly and still kind of likes being a whore, though she’s not sure why. Maybe it’s the sex? Maybe it’s San Francisco: “The best thing about my 4 a.m. walk down Polk Street is the Latina trannygirls on Post, singing songs in Spanish, practicing dance moves, and hugging each other in the rain.”
Is that somebody leaving their heart in San Francisco?