The End of San Francisco, out by City Lights last month, is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's potent memoir about longing: longing for good sex, meaningful relationships, a father's admission of sexual abuse, an LGBT community that supports and questions itself, and most longing for release. The most surprising truth in this memoir is the crux of Sycamore's appetite -- her appetite for seamless belonging is equally matched by an agitated addiction to pursue and lose herself in her ecstasies, a road that she dutifully travels each time only to discover that her ecstasies are ephemeral and haunting.
Written in nine parts, The End of San Francisco is a conversational, disordered account of the author's anxiety-riddled childhood, her sexual encounters, and a life of clubbing, partying, and stirring activism. The writing is urgent, poignant, high-pitched, then expository. But it is this unevenness that makes the book sound more like an authentic monologue: Sycamore alternately purring in your ear, yelling in your face, or sedately stating the intricacies and repressions she sees in the LGBT community.
The first part of the book is harrowing, as Sycamore shares her charged return home. To Sycamore, home is a place of exile. Her family calls her "Matthew" -- there is a layer of terror to the telling. She is there to confront her father, who is heavily medicated and on his deathbed, to ask him once again to admit to the sexual abuse. It is unclear how much is getting through to her father and there is no answer on his part. Sycamore writes, "then there are so many layers to my sobbing: there's holding the chest while spasming anyway; there's tears gliding smoothly down skin; there's tears in eyes, face, inside everything."
This book is filled with sounds of the 1990s club scene. Some of the most beautiful writing is on the experience of dancing, perhaps heightened by the fact that Sycamore suffers from fibromyalgia, making it sometimes painful to dance. Here is Cajmere's "Brighter Days," which I recommend you listen to as you read Sycamore's writing on the experience of dancing to it just beneath:
"Screaming when the beat got knock-you-down over-whelming and breathe-deep soothing at the same time or that sample came at the exact moment when you couldn't possibly handle it or just because you saw the wrong person at the right time or the right person at the wrong time or because there was something missing I mean there was nothing missing for just that moment with the sweat pouring down your face your eyes bringing the beat into your body your body taking it."
Sycamore came to San Francisco in the 1990s, a budding queer activist and part, she writes, "of a whole generation of queers who came to San Francisco to try and cope." Sycamore was seeking to join something of a queer utopia in San Francisco, but found it lacking, which made her up and move to New York, then Seattle, then San Francisco again, and Seattle again. To this reader it seems that she was on a quest for what she describes elsewhere as "transcendence through an engagement with gestures of public desire." The end of that road is a sobering one, as Sycamore loses her hope for transcendence both in the bedroom and in San Francisco: "I understand why so many [...] give up hoping that sex will become anything other than something lost, over and over again this loss or maybe I mean lack, this sense that something is lacking and some people go to great lengths to keep it that way. Others just follow the rules, and the rest of us slowly lose our sense that sex will ever illuminate anything."
For Sycamore, the San Francisco of her mythology, the place where queerness and activism and otherness could thrive, is over. The End of San Francisco could be the most insightful break-up memoir the city has ever received.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore will be reading from The End of San Francisco on April 30, 7:00pm at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and on May 2nd, 7:30pm, at Pegasus Bookstore in Berkeley. For more information, visit City Lights and Pegasus Books.